Science in Christian Perspective



Deception and the Christian Psychologist
Ronald L. Koteskey 
Department of Psychology 
Asbury College 
Wilmore, Kentucky 40390

From: JASA 31 (March 1979): 58-59.

Some people say that scientists who are Christians use the same methods as secular scientists but interpret the results differently. Although this is true in many instances, it is not always the ease. For instance, the use of deception in psychological research and testing, a widely accepted practice, raises both methodological and ethical problems. Christians must decide whether or not they can use deception and, if not, what alternatives are available.

MeGuire (1969) pointed out that psychologists have taken for granted that the subject should be kept unaware of the purpose of the research. This ignorance is achieved by not telling the subjects about the nature of the research or by misinforming them. This is sometimes done even for such prosaic topics as psychophysics or verbal learning. Seeman (1969) found that more than 10% of the studies in general experimental psychology used deception while nearly 40% of those in personality and social psychology did so. Stricker (1967) noted that some areas of research employ deception routinely. For example, he reported that 72% of the studies in balance theory and 81% of those in conformity used deception. Some authors even discuss ways of improving deception in experimentation. As Stricker (1967) put it, "deception, per Se, has become a prestigious methological device."

Psychologists argue that such deception is necessary in some types of research and that nothing is wrong with it as tong as the subjects are dehoaxed (told the truth) before they leave the experiment. However, such deception has created a whole new set of methodological problems. Subjects do not come to an experiment completely blank, without expectations as to what is expected of them. Kelman (1967) notes that many subjects now approach the experiment with suspicion and try to figure out what the experiment is "really about--even when they are not being deceived. As one subject put it, ''Psychologists always lie!" Of course, he was exaggerating since the evidence show's they lie only from 10% to 80% of the time. Although the evidence is conflicting, some studies show' that suspicious subjects behave differently than unsuspicious ones. Strickcr, Mcssick, and Jackson (196?) found this to he true in their experiments, where about 50% of their subjects were suspicious as to the purpose of the experiment-and their subjects were high school students, not college sophomores who know even more about the ways of psychologists. As Seenian (1969) put it, ''we may soon be reaching a point where we no longer have naive subjects, but only naive experimenters'' (p. 1026). Although most ''counts'' of the frequency of deception were made in the laic 1960's, Smang (1976) believes that suspicion is becoming more widespread, and he again found less conformity by suspicious subjects.

A similar situation is found in psychological testing. People taking projective tests do not know what they are revealing about themselves by their answers. Although there is a great deal of controversy over the reliability and validity of such tests, the personality profiles arrived at by these tests can profoundly influence she direction of a person's life. They can be part of a battery of tests to have him committed to psychiatric rare or to a program of special education. Persons taking personality inventories, such as the Minnesota Multiphasie Personality Inventory, do not know whether their answers will count toward the depression scale, the schizophrenic scale, the paranoia scale, and so forth.

Psychologists again argue that ignorance of the purpose of the test is necessary. If the person knew what he was revealing about himself, he would change his answers to present a more favorable picture of himself. As a result, individuals taking these tests try to guess what each answer might "really mean." They naturally believe that they are being tricked because they do not know what they are revealing about themselves. They know only that the psychologist is searching for hidden symbols and deep meanings. The psychologists are on guard because they know that the patients are on guard. Testing, like experimenting, becomes a game of which can outwit the other.

Although such methodological problems are serious, the related ethical problems are even more serious to us as Christians. Is lying a legitimate means to the end of truth? Seeman (1969) maintains that the end of any process is inexorably embedded in the means used to reach it, so that a process which uses deceptive means cannot lead to truth. Thus deception is not only not a legitimate means to truth, but not a means to truth at all. It is difficult to conceive how psychologists devoted to the search for truth can maintain that it is necessary to tell lies in that search. How can they condone deception when the discovery of truth is the basic moral imperative which is the core of their vocation?

McGuire (1969) points out that most psychologists feel some moral revulsion and embarrassment when deceiving a subject, even if they believe that the deception is in the interest of discovery of a higher truth. The widespread use of the post-experimental dehoaxings is impressive evidence of the felt ethical concern. Most psychologists maintain that such deception is permissible as long as it can be removed. After reviewing the available literature on dehoaxing, Holmes (1976) concludes that in most cases dehoaxing is an effective technique for eliminating misinformation learned by the subjects as a result of being deceived in an experiment. Although this meets the standards set in the Ethical Principles in the Conduct of Research with Human Participants adopted by the American Psychological Association, I do not believe it is a high enough standard for us at Christians. Since it is unethical to lie in everyday life, it should also be considered unethical to lie in an experiment. Lying is still a violation of the dignity and respect with which a person, created in the image of God, should be treated, even if that person is involved in an experiment.

The 1953 American Psychological Assocation Code of Ethics stated that psychologists should refuse to support unwarranted assumptions, invalid application or unjustified conclusions in using psychological tests, it also declared unethical any procedure likely to deceive a client. Stagner (1974) noted that if the code were strictly enforced, many personality measures might be outlawed completely. In recent years psychologists have questioned their measures and the answers have placed psychologists in an ethical conflict. However, rather than resolving the conflict by abandoning tests which do not meet the ethical standards, they have changed the standards. Psychologists now are not to use techniques which "fail to meet professional standards" established in particular fields. Again, I believe that, as Christians, we should abandon particular tests rather than abandoning our standards. 

When searching the literature for research on deception, I found no related or synonumous terms which were consistent with a Christian worldview. Psychological Abstracts said, "See also cheating, malingering, faking, pathological lying," The American Psychological Association Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms listed "lying, behavior disorders, cheating, confabulation, faking, malingering, and dishonesty," under "deception." I propose that, as Christians, we do not condone the use of deception, in research or testing. When students write research proposals including deception, we should not approve them. Journals taking a Christian perspective should not publish research using deception. We should not teach testing methods based on deception.

Rather than spending our time rationalizing the use of deception and creating more elaborate schemes of deception, we should spend it developing new methodologies and perfecting existing ones which do not use deception. Kelman (1967) suggests role playing as an alternative to deception. Eisner (1977) suggests using simulations, naturalistic observation, and unobtrusive measures. Changing methodology will change the nature of psychological research, but existing methods are already questionable with the suspiciousness on the part of our subject population. Of course, this may mean that we are unable to do research in some subject areas, such as conformity or balance theory, at least until we develop adequate procedures which do not involve deception.

We should also be open and honest in our techniques of personality assessment. Although this has been repeatedly proposed, it has never been adopted by large numbers of psychologists. Kelly (1955) proposed what has come to be called the credulous attitude. He said that if you do not know what is wrong with the person, ask him-have a straightforward talk with the person in an interview situation. Wallace (1966) proposed that instead of concealing the purpose of the test, we tell the person about it. For instance, on the Thematic Apperception test, rather than just having a person tell a story about a picture, ask him to tell the sexiest, or most aggressive, or most compassionate story he can think of. MeMahan (1969) describes a personality test he published in which each item was completely transparent, so that the test takers could easily tell whether or not a given response would count "against" them. Such tests, emphasizing openness, honesty, and personal encounter, are much more in keeping with a Christian perspective than are the more popular tests today.


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