Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


Deception in Social Psychological Research: A Reply to Koteskey
David E. Johnson 
Department of Psychology 
University of Arkansas 
Fayetteville, Arkansas 72701


From: JASA 31 (September 1979): 174-175.

In Journal ASA, March 1979, a communication by Ronald L. Koteskey exhorted Christian psychologists to abandon the use of deception in their psychological research. Although Koteskey's conclusion that deception is lying, and therefore unacceptable, cannot be faulted on theological grounds, I believe that his characterization of the use of deception is, at times, inaccurate. This paper is an attempt to clarify several important points that Koteskey either omitted or, in my opinion, misperceived.

1. Koteskey never formally presents the rationale behind the use of deception in social psychological research. Deception is basically used to more closely approximate a "real world" situation. Koteskey implies just the opposite: that deception creates artificiality, suspicion and bias. Most social psychologists would submit that deception is, in many cases, a good "real world" approximation. Just as the subjects are unaware of the experimenters motives, we are often unaware of the motives of the persons around us with whom we are interacting.
2. Koteskey characterizes the social psychologist as a devious individual who sits in his laboratory constantly developing techniques to be used in duping unsuspecting subjects. Nothing could be further from the truth. The conscientious social psychologist uses deception only as a last resort when, in his/her opinion, the phenomenon cannot be with subjects who are aware of the experimental hypothesis. In fact, one of the most highly respected 
textbooks on research methods in social psychology (Carismith, Ellsworth, and Aronson, 1976) suggests that the experimenter confronted with the choice between deception and a less preferable method, should probably elect to utilize the latter, provided it is still adequate.
3. Koteskey's emphasis on the data that show up to an 803/4 deception rate in certain areas of social psychological research was an accurate account of the state of affairs in the '60's. 1 would be reluctant to generalize the same finding to the present. Over the last ten years psychologists have become increasingly sensitive to the rights of human research participants. As evidence of this, the American Psychological Association published a number of guidelines in 1973 regarding the ethical principles to be upheld when conducting research with human participants. While deception is an acceptable technique within these guidelines, the increased emphasis on ethical considerations is certainly a step in the right direction. Another point that I believe potentially outdates Koteskey's implication of increasingly deceptive research, is the changing nature of social psychology as a discipline over the past 10-12 years. The increasing emphasis on rational information processing in social psychology has often eliminated the need for deception.
4. While Koteskey's article is fundamentally correct with respect to the finding that subjects approach the experiment with suspicion, he leaves the reader with indomplete information about the nature of the suspicion. Koteskey allows the reader to conclude that a subject's behavior is systematically altered by suspicion.

Unfortunately, there is very little data upon which to make such a firm judgment. For behavior to be systematically altered, subjects would (in most experiments) have to guess the experimenters hypothesis correctly. This is a highly unlikely occurrence. A more tenable explanation is put forth by Kelman (1968) and Carlsmith, Ellsworth, and Aronson (1976). They suggest that the subjects' suspicion could be classified as generalized suspicion. While this viewpoint acknowledges the suspiciousness of subjects, it does not suggest that there are necessarily systematic biases in the data. Rather, it suggests that suspicion increases the subjects' "trying to guess the hypothesis" behavior. However, since it is untenable to believe that all of the subjects are correctly guessing the hypothesis, it is assumed that many hypotheses are generated. As a result, we do not get systematic biases, but rather we get an increase in our error variance. Therefore, the literature of social psychology is not filled with artifactual data due to subject suspicion, but rather we have probably failed to reject the null hypothesis when it was untenable, i.e., we may have missed effects that really exist. This admittedly forces us into a very conservative framework, but it also seems to present a more accurate picture of social psychological research than the one implied by Kuteskey.

I would like to briefly relate my own experience with subject suspicion in research. Most of my research involves having subjects fill out post-experimental questionnaires or have a verbal interview to assess suspicion. Subjects in my research often express suspicion, but it tends to be of a generalized nature, i.e., they often believe that there is something going on that is not obvious. However, rarely can they be very specific about it. Furthermore, comparisons between those who express suspicion and those who do not, has never revealed significant differences.

5.I take exception with Koteskey's comment that deception in research can never lead to truth. I submit that the truth as he describes it, is different from the truth that psychologists are seeking. There can essentially be two ways of looking at the term truth: subjectively and objectively. Hindus, Moslems, and Christians all claim to be seeking and attaining truth, but we find little similarity in their methods utilized to obtain the ''ultimate'' or even in what the "ultimate" is. They are, in a sense, looking at truth subjectively. Psychologists, on she other hand, attempt to deal with truth objectively, as do other scientists. That is, we are looking for lawful relationships just as the chemist or medical research looks for lawful relationships. Unlike the religions mentioned earlier, truth to the psychologist (as an ultimate goal) refers to indisputable, objective data. An example should suffice to illustrate my point. Often in medical research, placebo groups are included. These people receive an injection or pill, but are not informed about the innocuous nature of the treatment. They are being deceived. Does this automatically doom the results of this research? Would we say that the data collected in this research were not the truth? We would probably be unlikely to make such a judgment. Why then, does Koteskey reason that deception in psychological experiments yields untruth. I can conclude only that he is referring to subjective truth, since the use of deception is obviously not within his own personal framework.

6. Finally, Koteskey seems to ally himself with the notion that simulations, naturalistic observations, and unobtrusive measures are preferable to the use of deception. Unfortunately, he fails to consider the possible ethical considerations involved in using some of these techniques. For example, research in the field where we might use naturalistic observation, often denies the subjects the right to give their informed consent. Since these persons are unknowingly participating in research, they are in a sense being deceived. While this can be ethical within the framework set up by the American Psychological Association, it obviously is inconsistent with Koteskey's expressed viewpoint.

In summary, I am not advocating that Christian psychologists adopt deception as a means of doing research. That is a decision that individual psychologists must struggle with. I do agree with Koteskey's statement that methods of research and testing must be improved. However, to totally dismiss the findings of research because deception was used is, I believe, an inaccurate formulation.


Carlsmith, J. M., Ellsworth, P. C., & Aronson, E. Methods of research in social psychology. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1976.
Kelman, H. C. A time to speak: On human values and social research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1968.
Koteskey, R. L. Deception and the Christian psychologist. Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 1979, 3), 58-59.