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Lying in the Laboratory:
Deception in Human Research
from Psychological, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives


Roberts Wesleyan College
Rochester NY 14624

From Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 34 (December 1992):201-212.
© 1982 American Scientific Affiliation

Deception, as a research tool, is "objectively" consideration three perspectives. The major arguments found in psychology are summarized and the possibility of substituting role playing for deception is discussed. The paper also reviews the major philosophical positions and what they employ the use of deception. A scriptural approach to lying suggests that, although generally unacceptable, lying may be justified in the specific case of frying to gain understanding. Finally, approaching deception "subjectively" the authors conclude that under certain limiting conditions deception may be on acceptable methodology for Christian researchers.

Browsing through the evening newspaper you find an ad soliciting subjects for a psychology experiment. The prospect of participating seems intriguing and the pay is good so you call for an appointment. As a result, several days later you report to a scientist (at least he's wearing a tab coat and glasses) at a laboratory on the campus of a prestigious local university. Since the other subject, a friendly man in his mid-fifties, has already arrived, the experiment begins. The scientist explains he will be studying the effects of punishment upon learning. your task will be to help the other subject learn lists of paired associate words by administering electric shock whenever he makes a mistake. All of you then go to an adjacent room where the other subject is strapped into a chair with electrodes attached to his arm. You then return to the original room with the scientist, and sit in from of an impressive-looking shock generator. The face of the machine has a series of switches with the last one marked "Danger: Severe Shock." In the learning task that follows, you find yourself administering increasingly higher levels of shock to the other subject. Very soon the subject begins to complain, then begins to groan in agony, and eventually refuses to even attempt the task. Of course, you feel uncomfortable and unsure. You press the switches as lightly as possible and even repeatedly ask the scientist to discontinue the experiment. But the scientist, accepting personal responsibility, orders you to continue. Finally, after what seems hours, you press the last switches marked "Danger: Severe Shock." and the experiment is over.

You've just been deceived. The other subject, an accomplice of the experimenter, never received any shock. And the experimenter was not studying the effectiveness of punishment but rather your willingness to obey hurtful commands. You participated in what's become known as the Milgram obedience paradigm.

Not too surprisingly, Stanley Milgram's methods and results (in the original study Milgram [1963] found unexpectedly high levels of obedience) have aroused considerable controversy.2 It would be erroneous to assume, however, that the use of deception in psychological research has been limited to a few, highly publicized experiments. In the applied areas we find placebos, misattribution therapy, and control groups which provide a baseline comparison for the effectiveness of therapeutic techniques. In the basic branch of the family tree some areas of research rely almost exclusively upon deception (e.g., conformity and attitude change) This isn't to say that all or even most psychologists use deception. But it is a technique provisionally allowed by the American Psychological Association's guidelines for research with humans (APA, 1973), it does appear in the method sections of many psychological journals (Menges, 1973), and it has been recommended as a therapeutic technique (Goldstein, Heller, and Sechrest, 1966).

The purpose of this paper is to analyle critically the general practice of intentional lying within the domain of laboratory research (with a particular emphasis upon psychology). We first attempt to identify and discuss the relevant issues from the perspective of three disciplines: philosophy, theology, and, of course, psychology. Fortunately, each of us makes a living in one of these three fields. We then attempt to integrate our perspectives and outline what we consider to be an acceptable Christian position on this topic.

                                        A Psychological Perspective

Psychologists have developed reasonable arguments for and against the use of deception. This section of the paper presents some of the major arguments and briefly summarizes the relevant empirical Literature. Finally, the potential for role playing as a substitute for deception is discussed.

Most psychologists concede that the use of deception is ethically problematic, but for methodological reasons some argue that deception is a necessary research tool. Four reasons for using deception are commonly cited.

                                                        Arguments for Deception

1.  Deception allows the experimenter to increase the impact of a laboratory setting (Aronson and Carlsmith, 1965; Cooper, 1976). Presumably as the experimental situation becomes more realistic and involving, the independent variables are more Likely to have the impact (but not necessarily the results) intended by the experimenter. Campbell (1957) calls this internal validity, a necessary condition for generalizing from the laboratory to the outside world.

As an extreme example of increasing internal validity consider a study by Berkun, et al. (1962) which assessed the effects of panic upon performance. In this study military personnel were led to believe they were in immediate danger of losing their life because of misdirected incoming artillery shells. The only means of escape was to repair a faulty radio transmitter and contact someone outside the area. Of course, the personnel were never really in danger. But it seems safe to conclude that the study did provide an accurate view of performance under emergency conditions.

2. Some significant areas of human life simply cannot be explored ethically using the experimental method. By using deception, however, the experimenter can sometimes sidestep this ethical dilemma by creating a facsimile of the area of interest.

Darrel and Lateen's (1970) work with bystander intervention provides a good example. Typically, these researchers staged emergencies (someone experiencing a seizure, breaking a leg, etc.), manipulated other situational factors, and then determined the impact of these factors upon bystanders' willingness to help. This research produced valuable information about how people respond to such situations without having to create an actual emergency. Certainly, an alternative methodology would have been to use a more descriptive approach, but then. the causal relationships might not have been so clear.

3. Using deception may protect the experimenter from certain "subject problems." This argument is based on the assumption that a subject's motives can profoundly affect how he or she responds to the experimental situation. It has been argued that some motives place subjects in roles that threaten the validity of research results. Three such problem roles have been extensively discussed.

The negativistic subject (Cook, Bean, Calder, Prey, Krovetz, and Reisman, 1970; Masling, 1966) wants to disconfirm the experimenter's hypothesis. Such an expression of hostility may result from the inconvenience of participating in the study or perhaps may be a reaction to the experimenter's temporary control over the subject. But, regardless of the reason, the subject now wants to invalidate the experimenter's study.

The good subject (Orne, 1962) is motivated in a more positive, but still misguided, direction. This subject wants to benefit science and/or the experimenter. However, the subject attempts to "help" by consciously confirming the experimenter's hypothesis. This kind of help can lead the experimenter to conclude falsely that the validity of his or her hypotheses has been verified.

The apprehensive subject (Rosenberg, 1965) wants to "look good" in the eyes of the experimenter. Most every… one is at times concerned about the image he or she presents to others. The presence of an expert in psychological health (the experimenter as viewed through some subjects' eyes) probably amplifies such a concern. Thus, in an experiment, a subject might not respond honestly when such a response could make him look like a psychological pygmie.

Weber and Cook (1972) review the research assessing the impact of subject roles upon experimental results. They conclude the apprehensive subject role has the strongest empirical base. However, given the right situation, it seems likely that all three roles could profoundly affect how subjects respond.

4. Psychologists favoring deception typically assume any potential negative effects resulting from deception (e.g., disruption of the subject-experimenter relationship. hurtful self-revelations, or dismay at being deceived) can be removed through debriefing. This technique essentially involves removing any false information (dehoaxing) or negative feelings (desensitizing) resulting from deception. As a rule most reseachers attempt to guarantee that subjects will finish an experiment in as good or better psychological shape than they began.

The empirical evidence supporting the effectiveness of debriefing is mixed. In a well-known study, Berscheid, Abrahams and Aronson (1967), after using deception to manipulate social skills feedback, found dehoaxing immediately ineffective for all subjects and ineffective for an even longer period of time with certain personality types. But, after weighing all the available empirical evidence, Holmes (1976a, 1976b) concluded that dehoaxing and desensitizing were actually effective.

                                                Arguments Against Deception

Those opposing the use of deception take exception to some of the ideas presented above and advance arguments of their own. The following paragraphs summarize some of the more common arguments against deception.

1. Some psychologists argue that deception promotes an unfortunate role for subjects in research (e.g., Kelman, 1967). They argue that too often subjects assume roles that are second-rate and powerless compared to the experimenter. The eventual result may be a negativistic reaction by subjects (withdrawal, hostility, etc.) which can lead to a subversion of the ultimate goal of research, understanding.

Deception may contribute to such a situation in at least two ways. First, to the extent that knowledge produces power, deception (at least initially) reduces the subject's power. And secondly, the use of deception means the subject is no longer free to choose intelligently what conditions he or she will be exposed to. Such a loss of freedom again results in a reduction of relative power. Probably the most famous example is the Milgram (1963) experiment, referred to earlier, where some subjects displayed their willingness to obey destructive commands. Such information may have given the subjects a broader understanding of themselves, but obtaining it was not part of the original agreement when they decided to participate.

The most commonly proposed remedy for this state of affairs in participatory research (Kelman, 1967). Such an approach views research as a joint effort with the subject and experimenter collaborating toward the goal of gaining understanding. Unlike deception, the experimenter attempts to increase the subject's sophistication. Ideally, this approach enhances the interest of the subject and, thus, produces behavior that is honest and natural. A good example of participatory research is role playing, a technique discussed in more detail later.

2. Interwoven with the above position is the notion that deception implies an unfortunate view of the nature of man. Essentially, deception implies that man must be deceived under certain conditions because he cannot be trusted. Opponents of deception argue that mankind deserves the benefit of the doubt (Jourard, 1971; Kelman, 1967). They suggest that treating people as if they are honest and trustworthy promotes the same.

3. Deception is poor public relations for psychology. Presumably, the average citizen believes that people who lie are bad. Thus, some psychologists fear that as it becomes common knowledge that psychologists use deception, psychology's public image will receive a "black eye." Such a state of affairs could produce at least two unpleasant consequences. First, a reputation for lying might make it more difficult for a psychologist to establish a trusting relationship in therapy. And secondly, a negative public image might lead to overly restrictive legislation controlling the research process.

Looking at the available empirical evidence provider at least some assurance for the psychologist. First, it seems that when applying an ethical ruler to research, psychologists are more conservative than potential student subjects (Sullivan and Deiker, 1973). This graciousness on the part of students may reflect a general feeling in our society of the importance of science and a desire to allow science freedom to grow. Secondly, in the public mind, deception by itself seems to be a secondary consideration that becomes significant only when used in a particularly stressful way (Mannucci, 1977; Rugg, 1975).

4. Using deception may eventually prove to be self-defeating. Successful deception produces an unsuspecting group of subjects. But as word of the use of deception spreads the eventual result may be a generally suspicious subject population. Certainly one solution to such a problem would be to seek out new subject populations (i.e., look beyond the college sophomore), but such a solution seems short-sighted at best.

Empirically, consideration of the suspicion issue has focused on primarily three issues: 1) Do deceived subjects talk about their experiences to other potential subjects? 2) Does suspicion affect experimental results? and 3) Is it possible to assess suspicion independently?

The issue of subjects' willingness to discuss experimental procedures is significant since it is related to the general level of suspicion in a subject population. At least two studies provide mixed results. Wuebben (1967) found that most subjects talked even though they promised not to. Interestingly, he found this tendency to talk was more pronounced for later-borns than first-borns or only children. But Aronson (1966) found no evidence for inter-subject communication. Comparing two studies it becomes apparent that Aronson took greater care than Wuebben in' convincing subjects of the importance of not discussing the experiment and generally encouraged a higher level of subject involvement in the debriefing process. This suggests that if an experimenter is willing to debrief subjects extensively and carefully, they will reciprocate by complying with requests not to discuss procedures.

When looking at the impact of suspicion upon research results, again the evidence is mixed. Some studies have found that suspicion affects how subjects respond to an experimental situation (Adair, 1972; Cook, Bean, Calder, Frey, Krovetz, and Reisman, 1970; Rubin and Moore, 1971; Holmes and Appelbaum, 1970; Silverman, Shulman, and Wiesenthal, 1970; Stricker, Measiclr, and Jackson, 1967) while others have found little or no effect of suspicion (Allen, 1966; Brock and Becker, 1966: Fillenbaum, 1966). It is, therefore, impossible to draw general conclusions,ions. Rather, the effect of suspicion probably depends upon such factors as previous research experience, the role adopted by a subject, the level of suspicion, the personality of the subject, and the specific situation (those eliciting special concern about self-presentation are probably most vulnerable).

Since the above discussion suggests that under certain conditions suspicion can affect performance, the issue of detecting suspicion becomes significant. At this time the strongest statement that can be made is that often the task of assessment can be difficult and the specific methods used may profoundly affect the outcome (Golding and Lichtenstein, 1970; Levy, 1967; Rubin and Moore, 1971).

Role Playing or on Alternative

A lot of energy, time, and thought has gone into the deception controversy, And even now the conflict continues. Perhaps the ideal solution would be to introduce a new methodology as effective as deception but without the ethical baggage associated with deception. Such a proposal has been made before (Kelman, 1967). Currently, the leading candidate as a replacement for deception is role playing.

Role playing is a global term covering a large number of variations along a basic theme. Essentially this theme involves providing the subject with more information than is typical with a deception paradigm.The polar extremes of this theme are what Horowitz and Rothschild (1970) call forewarning and prebriefing. forewarned subjects are simply told before a study begins that deception may be involved and at this point have the opportunity of freely choosing to place themselves in a situation where they may be misled. Prebriefed subjects are given a detailed explanation of all the deceptions which will be part of a study (essentially the same information as would be contained in a debriefing) and then are asked to participate in the study as if they had not been informed.

The key question, of course, is can role playing produce the same results as deception?' Empirically, the evidence for prebriefing has been mixed (for example, see: Gallo, Smith, and Mumford, 1973; Greenberg, 1967; Holmes and Bennett, 1974; Willis and Willis, 1970). The effectiveness of prebriefing is probably a function of various factors: the extent to which the subjects play an active or passive role, whether subjects role play themselves or the role of another, the staging of the experimental situation, the inherent acting ability of the subject, and the type of dependent variable (behavioral vs. self-report). Interestingly, so far the results for forewarning have been less ambiguous. To our knowledge every empirical test of forewarning has found no difference between the results produced by it and deception (Gallo, Smith, and Mumford, 1973; Horowitz and Rothschild, 1970; Holmes and Bennett, 1974). Thus, the validity of role playing seems to depend upon the type of role playing, the nature of the experimental situation, and the subject. Therefore, it does seem premature to conclude summarily that role playing is a methodologically acceptable substitute for deception.


This section has attempted to summarize current psychological thought concerning deception. One danger of such an approach is oversimplification leading to a "good guy vs. bad guy" mentality. Clearly, from a psychological perspective, both a pro- and anti-deception position can be defended intelligently and with integrity.

A Philosophical Perspective

It is the function of the social scientist to identify needed areas of study, design relevant experiments to generate the necessary data and then analyze and utilize the results. But the social scientist qua scientist cannot tell us which areas of human experience, if any, ought not be studied, which methodologies, if any, ought not be used, or how the anticipated or accrued results ought or ought not to be utilized. These are ethical judgments that should be based on one's fundamental philosophical beliefs about the nature of reality, especially one's beliefs concerning personhood and knowledge and the proper relationship between them. Accordingly, it is the social scientist (or other interested observer), qua philosopher or theologian, who must make such decisions.

There are three popular philosophical approaches to ethical questions.

I. Relativism. The relativist's fundamental ethical belief is that no moral absolutes exist. What is right is what an individual (a subjectivist) or group (a cultural relativist) thinks is right. Given this perspective, the question of deception in experimentation obviously poses no major ethical problems. If an individual scientist, or group of scientists, believes such deception is justifiable in a given situation, it is.

This does not mean, though, that such deception could never generate a moral dilemma for the relativist. He or she might, for example, feel it is wrong to use deception in a specific experiment but believe it is important to gain and use the information such deception would supply. Such a dilemma, however, would be primarily psychological, not logical, since for the relativist no objective standard exists against which the moral consistency of his or her ultimate decision can be judged.

It is, of course, questionable whether anyone is (or can be) totally relativistic in practice. But many individuals are "selective" relativists, and it may be that some social scientists (rightly or wrongly) feel justified in affirming a relativistic position with respect to the issue at hand.

2. Consequentialism (Teleological theories). For the consequentialist there are, in principle, no intrinsically right or wrong actions. An action is (or becomes) right if it has good consequences. There are two popular consequentialist theories.

a) Utilitarianism. The utilitarian maintains that the right action is that which generates the greatest amount of happiness (or pleasure) for the greatest number of people. More specifically, the "act utilitarian" is concerned with the amount of happiness actually generated for those directly involved in a given activity, while the "rule utilitarian" is concerned with the potential for happiness inherent in the repeated and widespread performance of a given type of activity.

If a social scientist were an act utilitarian, accordingly, he or she would be interested in assessing the amount of happiness or unhappiness generated in each specific experiment utilizing deception. Will the deceived individuals experience a lessening of self-worth when they later assess their actions? Will they lose trust in the experimenter when they learn of the deception? Is the use of deception the best way to achieve the desired results in this case? Could the desired results significantly benefit certain individuals? Will the experimenter feel a sense of shame? If, after considering these and related questions, the social scientist felt that a greater amount of happiness for those directly involved (e.g., subjects, experimenter, beneficiaries) would be achieved by using deception in a given experiment, it would be justifiable. The key point to keep in mind is that, under act utilitarianism, the ethical propriety of each experiment involving deception would have to be judged individually.

On the other hand, if our social scientist were a rule utilitarian, he or she would be concerned, not with any specific instance of deception, but with the practice in general. Will the general practice of deception in experimentation tend to make subjects suspicious and thus induce "artificial" responses? Will the general use of deception lead to a general disregard for the rights of individuals, and thus lead to a general disregard for personhood? Are other, equally satisfactory methodologies available? If, after considering these and related questions, it was felt that the general practice would have negative consequences (i.e., generate a net increase in unhappiness or pain) for society as a whole, it would be wrong for any social scientist to use deception in experimentation, even if a given scientist felt strongly that the practice would have positive consequences in his or her own situation.

b) Ethical egoism.The ethical egoist believes that an individual ought to act in his or her own self-interests--i,e,, equate good consequences with self-fulfillment. Egoism, it should be noted, is distinct from relativism. The relativist denies that an objective methodology exists by which to make ethical decisions; the egoist affirms this claim. Relativism, accordingly, allows for greater ethical variation. The relativist can, if he or she desires, act in his or her own self-interest, or in the interest of others or on the basis of no rational.considerations at all. The ethical egoist does or should always act in an openly self-indulgent manner. The egoist, for example, might appear altruistic. Egoism requires only that the primary reason for any form of ostensive behavior ultimately be self-interest.

When considering the question of deception, therefore, the egoistic social scientist must decide whether such a practice will benefit him or her personally. Such a decision would, of course, be relative to the perceived "interests" of each scientist utilizing this ethical methodology. Moreover, such a social scientist could well find himself or herself facing a moral dilemma. For example, an egoistic scientist might desire the professional fame he or she believes could result from an experiment utilizing an especially creative, but quite embarrassing, form of deception, but not desire the anticipated loss of respect by the subjects involved. In such cases, the egoist would need to develop a priority rating for the given "interests" involved and make a decision accordingly.

We see then that consequentialism allows for a wide variety of answers to the question at hand. But each social scientist who espouses this methodology faces a similar problem: the difficult task of attempting to predict future consequences.

3. Nonconsequentialism (Deontological theories). For the nonconsequentialist, an action is right if performed in accordance with accepted moral laws.'The anticipated consequences are not relevant. Under non-consequentialism, accordingly, actions have intrinsic moral value.

Nonconsequentialist theories fall into three basic categories. The "intuitionist" believes that the right rule or specific action is known intuitively (self-evidently) by the morally mature individual. Not surprisingly, almost all "intuitionists" consider lying to be wrong. The "rationalist" believes that the right rule or specific action can be identified by the use of reason. Kant, for example, believed that an action was moral only if it could become a universal law without generating a contradiction. Moreover, he felt that under this principle lying is an immoral activity. For if everyone gave false promises (lied), he argued, the concept of "telling the truth" would become meaningless and thus lying, itself, would become impossible (self-contradictory). Most other "rationalistic" nonconsequentialists agree that lying is wrong. Finally, the "revelationist" believes that the right rule or specific action in any situation is that which is (or has been) dictated by God in some form of written or "mystical" communication. Almost all "revelationists" believe lying to be intrinsically wrong.

It might appear that the social scientist who espouses a nonconsequentialist theory could not under any condition condone the use of deception in experimentation. but such is not necessarily the case. In addition to believing that lying is wrong, many (if not most) nonconsequentialists also believe that the acquisition of human knowledge, the alleviation of human pain and suffering, and the improvement of the quality of human life are morally proper activities. Hence, for such social scientists, the use of deception in experimentation generates a prima facie conflict. The experiments themselves, when viewed as a means to the acquisition of knowledge--knowledge which is generally seen an potentially beneficial for humanity--must be considered good. But since such experiments necessitate the willful use of deception, they must also be viewed as morally unacceptable. Such a social scientist, accordingly, will be forced to violate an accepted moral norm. however, it must be emphasized that in making the decision to act m accordance with one moral principle at the expense of another, the social scientist would not be saying that an intrinsically unacceptable action can become intrinsically acceptable in some situations. He or she would simply be saying that circumstances sometimes dictate that an intrinsically unacceptable action must be performed in order to avoid the performance of an even less acceptable action. Such dilemmas, moreover, point out a fundamental difficulty facing the nonconsequentialist: the prioritizing of intrinsically good moral principles. Unfortunately, there seems to be no standard method for accomplishing this task.

We see then that there is no single philosophical response to the question of human deception in experimentation. One's response depends not only on one's basic ethical stance but on how one resolves the potential conflicts between various intrinsic or consequential ."Goods" which are inherent in each.'

                                            A Theological Perspective

The question whether a Christian ought to deceive under any circumstance at first seems out of order. In Colossians 3 lying is viewed as a reflection of the old nature, and thus, Paul encourages Christians to avoid it.5 But, in stark contrast to Paul's admonition, other passages of Scripture not only allow for deception but approve it. The Writer to the Hebrews characterized Rehabs concealment of the Israelite spies from the citizens of Jericho6 as an act of faith.7 We cannot claim then that there are no circumstances under which the Judeo-Christian tradition allows one to conceal the whole truth. But is one of those cases that of research into behavior by a Christian psychologist? That is the question we want to deal with. In order to answer it we need to inquire: are there clear, biblical and theological principles that apply to the issue of using deception in psychological research? We proceed primarily by examining relevant scriptural evidence. Then we summarize how these results apply to our inquiry.

                            Scriptural and Theological Principles that Prohibit Deception

God is truth, he does not lie, and in his dealings with us he is reliable.8 God's integrity, in fact, provides a basis for the structure of our relationships with him and with one another. God has entered into covenants with humans and the stability of these depends upon his truthfulness. Thus, Scripture calls him faithful (he keeps his word)9 and righteous (his action conforms to his covenant commitment).10 The dependability of God is so certain that we can confidently live in the face of obstacles and know that the future will be as he promised.11 His purpose is not to deceive or lead us astray but to conduct us on the way of truth.12

From this affirmation about God we move to the corresponding one concerning the world he created. We can generalize by saying that he established truth as a principle woven into the fabric of the cosmos.13 It is among the principles or laws by which this world (whether physical or social) operates. When the principles are ignored or violated disorder and chaos break out.14 God will in some way and at some time bring the liar into judgment and punishment for his deed.15 When we adhere to them there is stability--a natural, forward movement in which life prospers and is good.16

Thus, when the Bible describes an instance of deceit it also observes the results.17 It is not as if a simple lie had been told and that was the end of the matter. Rather, deceit sets in motion a chain of events. Things can happen to make the chain move into different directions, but in no instance is the chain reversed as if nothing ever happened. The relation of deed and consequence is unbreakable. Thus, as a fallout of telling a falsehood, innocent people may suffer injustice.18 Poverty and its tragic results may dog one because he has depended on deceit.19 Lying causes a breakdown in social stability.20 What if a wife cannot be certain of the word of her husband, a child of his parent, one neighbor of another,21 a master of a servant, or a citizen of his king?22 Second-guessing and cautiousness inevitably result when naive trust is betrayed. Oaths and securities are taken to guarantee a promise that will not stand alone.23 And beyond all this there is the internal personal chaos that breaks out. The man who deceiver, no matter what others think, knows what he has done and hence, is. He has eroded his own self-respect that results from integrity, skill, and diligence. He plays the game of concealing the truth not only from others but also from himself. This requires enormous psychic energy. The human exhausts himself juggling the data to hide the truth.24

A dependence upon deceit indicates a flaw in character, a defect in spirit.25 The person does not live as God made and intended, and he cannot reach his potential of character development and moral achievement.26 He has taken a short-cut to success and there is an inevitable loss in personhood. The use of deception reveals and aggravates this loss. One, for example, resorts to deception to conceal an evil action or thought rather than deal with it.27 Consequently the evil persists and the new problem of deception makes it worse. Or people may deceive hoping to satisfy greed.28 By lying they may succeed in overcharging for a product and get more for themselves.29 On the other hand, people sometimes lie because they hate or have contempt for another.30 They might rationalize that the other human being does not deserve an honest comment. What he is or who he is, is not their personal responsibility, and any thought or action that one can make to another's disadvantage because he is deceived is of no concern to him. Thus, the person who deceives believes that he can control others by deceit and that he has a right to do so.31

There are many cases in which biblical heroes are the subjects who deceive but in which the intentions are wrong and the actions are not approved, even when the long range objectives were identical with God's will. For example, both Abraham32 and Isaac33 deceived monarchs about their wives so that the kings, seeing and desiring the beautiful women, would not kill the husbands and place the women in their harems. In these instances, God's will, the preservation of Abraham's family, was not set aside by the sin of his servants. But it is also clear that God did not approve of the deceit and the patriarchs were publicly rebuked for it.

In the biblical view, then, something is wrong with the person who lies as a matter of course. He believes that it is his prerogative to manipulate others through deception and he, therefore, has an inadequate view of personhood. The use of lying breaks Scripture's basic principle of human relationship-love.34 Whatever specific action we choose in a particular situation, it must arise from a love of the individual. This is not merely an emotion of sympathy or tenderness, but a motive toward positive, respecting and redeeming action. The dignity of the other human cannot be sacrificed for any reason or at any cost.

                     Scriptural or Theological Principles that Might Require Deception

The case against the use of deception might seem so strong that it excluder any exceptions. There are instances, however, of its use in Scripture which make such a generalization impossible. We need to examine these now to see how they make our inquiry more precise. There are three instances that we consider.

First, deceit receives divine approval, or at least tacit approval, when it is necessary to preserve life or the integrity of life.35 In these cases there is a ranking of values. One tells the truth as a general policy, but in an instance in which telling the truth would forfeit someone else's life, one does what he can to protect it. Here there is not a choosing between a good and an evil but between the lesser of two evils.

Second, there are easier where God is the subject of the deceit, or at least initiates it. Exodus 3:1620 reports how God intended to deceive Pharaoh in order to liberate Israel from slavery. He instructed Moses to ask Pharaoh's permission for Israel to go three days' journey into the wilderness and worship him there. Would they return afterward? This is not said although it is implied in the request. But obviously at that time God had in mind the eventual destination of the Promised Land rather than a three day detour in the desert. One of the reasons for this high level of manipulation is clear. Pharaoh was of such a mind, arrogating to himself the role of a god, and was so given to injustice that there could be no appeal to his religious or humane motives. He would respond only to what he thought was to his best advantage; thus, he was deceived into furthering, not hindering, God's will.

Third, we consider another use of deceit that appears to have divine approval: deception to obtain understanding. An example of this is found in the Joseph story.36 Long after Joseph's brothers had sold him into slavery, he rose to second place in Egypt's court, and during the seven years of famine was responsible for the distribution of the stored grain. When Joseph's brothers came to Egypt to buy grain, Joseph did not reveal himself to them for a good while. In fact, the things which he did before he finally disclosed his identity are very interesting. On their first trip to Egypt he accused them of being spies.37 claimed that they lied to him,38 threatened to put them all in prison,39 finally did keep Simeon,40 and then demanded that the next time they came they had to bring the younger brother.41 He also returned their money secretly.42 On their second trip his actions were even more complex. He assured them that the returned money was put there by their God.43 gave a benediction over Benjamin,44 ate with them seating them in order of age,45 returned their money again,46 and had his silver cup put into Benjamin's sack.47 But then he had them overtaken and threatened the man who took the cup.48 Finally, after Judah's offer of himself in Benjamin's place, Joseph revealed himself.49

Why did Joseph conceal the whole truth for such a long time? Biblical scholarship is always suspicious of attempts to psychologize the motives of biblical characters. There can be several reasons for a certain action; unless a story gives us a good clue, we must guard against projecting our own tendencies into the account. Perhaps there was some revenge in Joseph's mind. But the story also implies, especially because of the tacit approval, something Like this: through his questions, demands, and actions, Joseph was able to determine the true character of his brothers, and he discovered that they had changed a great deal. Whereas previously they had been jealous and selfish, they were now repentant and willing to sacrifice themselves. Joseph would have been unable to discover this, at least to its depths, without the testing$. Here is a case m which concealment of truth was the means by which character and behavior traits were discovered.

In another case, the Bible reports how a prophet through deception revealed the enormity of a monarch's unacknowledged crime. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba50 and then, to protect his legal innocence, had schemed for Uriah, her husband, to be slain in battle.51 Here was someone in a powerful position who was not about to accept the truth of his own behavior. Nathan, the prophet, however, deceived David\id into revealing that his actions did not conform to his own values.52 He told the king the parable of the poor man and his one Little ewe lamb. After hearing how the rich man had mercilessly stolen the lamb, the king with righteous indignation pronounced the verdict against the powerful rich man. Then the prophet shattered the complacent, arrogant king with the charge, "You are the man." In this case, deception was necessary in order to compel a powerful and rationalizing person to admit the truth about himself.


There are at least three types of cases, then, in which a form of deceit is approved within Scripture and Christian theology: (1) Deception may be necessary to protect life or the integrity of life. (2) God may deceive a person who had determined to go contrary to the divine will in order to further his plan of salvation. (3) Deception may be used to test or reveal the truth about character and behavior. This third type comes closest to our inquiry about the use of deception in psychological research. Deception is necessary here because human nature tends to conceal the truth when its revelation would prove embarrassing or costly. By deception one can be brought to see the truth, even against one's will.

In the three cases where Scripture allows deception, it does not because of the human predicament in sin. One may have to lie in order to save a life from violence by another. God may use the rebellious person to further his plan of salvation by deceiving him. Or by deception, the truth about character or behavior may be shown where it would otherwise go unrevealed. This is not a perfect but a fallen world, and on occasion Scripture endorses deception to expose its fallenness or to protect the innocent. Therefore, with respect to our inquiry we can ray the Bible and Christian theology allow for deception when it appears necessary to expose the truth about character and behavior.

On the other hand, Scripture by no means gives unqualified approval of its use. In general, deception contradicts the established principle of human relationships, arises from a defect in character, and inevitably introduces instability and distrust.the suspicion that sometimes surrounds psychologists conforms to this pattern.


We now face the task of integrating these three perspectives. We acknowledge that there is room for honest differences of opinion on this issue. But, given our understanding of ah the data at hand, it is our belief that under certain conditions, deception may be a justifiable technique for the Christian psychologist.

1. As nonconsequentialists; we consider deception to be intrinsically wrong. Therefore, even if it were decided that some greater good could be brought about by the use of deception, it must first be demonstrated that there is no other morally preferable methodology such as role playing that would be essentially as effective.

We are especially attracted to the use of forewarning as an alternative to straight deception. From an perspective even limited informed consent seems an improvement over straight deception in that the former shows greater respect for the subject's freedom of choice than does the latter. Unfortunately, not many studies directly testing the validity of forewarnings as a research technique have yet been conducted, but the evidence to date suggests that forewarning and straight deception produce the same results. This may be the case because many subject populations are already aware of the psychologist's use of deception and are, thus, in this sense already "forewarned." Moreover, when a subject freely chooses to risk deception, we suspect that from a psychological perspective debriefing would be simpler and the relationship between subject and experimenter less vulnerable. It also seems that by at least partially taking the subject into his or her confidence, the experimenter takes a significant step toward removing the inequity between the roles of subject and experimenter.

However, we acknowledge that forewarning may not always be as effective as deception. There are some situations where advertising the possibility of deception may bias the results (especially under those conditions where the possibility of deception may not already be salient for the subject). This seems especially true when the research paradigm is moderately transparent. Our reasoning is that with a clearly transparent paradigm the subject needs no clues to discover that deception is being used, while with a barely transparent paradigm no amount of prompting is going to allow the subject to penetrate the deception. Yet it should be noted that even if forewarning does allow the subject to discover the true purpose of the study, being at least par… partially brought into the experimenter's confidence may motivate the subject to put aside his hypothesis awareness and behave as naturally as possible. Of course, these speculations are subject to empirical test.

2. We do not subscribe to the popular scientific maxim that the pursuit of knowledge (no matter how potentially beneficial its application) is justifiable under any circumstances. More specifically, it is our contention that no amount of potentially beneficial information which an experimenter might bother by deceiving his or her subjects can justify the use of such deception if there exists the real possibility that the deceived individuals will permanently and/or severely be psychologically or physically harmed.

3. We realize that experimentation is at times undertaken primarily for the benefit of the researcher. However, while a desire for "personal gain" may not necessarily be wrong in all contexts, it is in our estimation never justifiable to use of manipulate another for personal advantage (monetary profit, prestige, or power). For to do so is to treat the individual in question as an object, someone we stand over against in moral and personal superiority. We are equals in the challenges and responsibilities of life; and our duty is to respect, love, serve, even when professional expertise gives us an advantage. Accordingly, a necessary condition for the use of deception, we believe, is that the experimentation be undertaken primarily because of its potential for benefiting mankind.

Perhaps this and the preceding qualification can be stated most succinctly by saying that a Christian researcher's motives should always reflect a love for God and a love for man. In this context, if deception reflects a love for God, the researcher will examine his motives to determine if they are as pure as possible. If deception reflects a love for man, the researcher will be concerned about the relationship between himself and the subject, avoiding potential harm to the subject, and making sure the research has a potential for benefiting mankind.

4. Finally, we do not feel that the individual researcher is always the best judge of the value of, or motive(s) for, his or her research. Thus, when weighing the potential value of, or motive(s) for, research--especially research involving deception--it may well be helpful for the investigator to consult with colleagues and perhaps even a sample of the potential subject pool.

Our discussion to this point has, of course, been based on the assumption that deception can provide a path toward understanding. Christian psychologist Ronald Koteskey (1979) seems to find this assumption unacceptable. He argues 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." If we substitute "false" for "deceptive" in Koteskey's argument, there is a sense in which he is correct. A true conclusion cannot be deduced validly from false premises. But if Koteskey means that the experimenter who uses deception cannot arrive al empirically valid results for results that are more empirically valid than those which would have been produced by non-deceptive means), his argument is dubious. First, deception is often used to duplicate a situation in the real world. And it seems reasonable to conclude that the closer an experimental situation is to its "real world" counterpart the more likely that paradigm is to reveal truth about how people typically respond. Secondly, as a result of the Fall, people are not always honest (especially when such honesty provides an unpleasant view of the self. Sometimes an effective cover story may help a subject to be more honest (at least in terms of the research question). This doesn't rule out the possibility that honesty can elicit honesty, but it does recognize that as a result of the fall there are certain limits to man's ability to be truthful. And since self-report often provides the primary dependent variable in an experiment, such a limitation is a significant concern.53


We have in our discussion attempted to articulate and defend one general perspective on the question of deception in experimentation. We, of course, realize that many thoughtful Christians may object strongly to our conclusions but find the prospect of such critical reaction encouraging. For it is our hope that this paper will stimulate further thought on the specific issue of deception as well as the more general issue of doing research within a Christian world-view.


1All three authors contributed significantly to this project, and thus, we all accept equally the credit or the blame for its contents. In addition, we are indebted to Harold Hurley for responding to an earlier version of this paper and Pen Whiuel for contributing to the review of the psychology literature.

2For an extended discussion of the ethical issues involved with the Milgram obedience studies. see Baumrind (1964) and Milgram (1964).

3Note: Some authors have turned this question around and suggested the true criterion of validity should be role playing (Forward, Canter. and Kirsch. 1976).

4For a well organized, readable discussion of the various ethical theories I have mentioned. we Jacques Theroux,  Ethics: Theory and Practice (Encino. California: Glcncoe Press. 1977).

5The citations of scriptural references are by no means exhaustive. We have merely drawn on representative passages. Col. 3:9-10; cf. Eph. 4:25; Ex. 20:16; Deut. 5:20.

6cf. Josh. 2:1-21; 6:17, 22-25.

7Heb. 11:31.

8cf. Ps. 36.5-7; Rom. 3:l-7; 11:30; Titus 1:2.

9Deut. 7:9; Ps. 89:14; 1 Thess. 5:24.

10Ps. 85:10-13; 96:13; Jer. 12:1; Rom. 1:17; 3:21-26.

11Ps. 31:5; 57:1-3; 91:1-6.

12Ps. 25:8-10.

13Ps. 89:1-18: 96:10-13: Prov 10:9.

14Prov. 11:4-6.

15Ps. 12; 59:6-13; 63:11; 101:3-5: Prov. 17:20; 19:5. 9; Isa. 29:18-21; 59:1-4, 12-15; Jer. 5:12-17.

16Ps. 34:11-14.

17Compare Gen. 27:5-30 with 32:3-32, where Jacob has to face up to the results of his deceit.

18Prov. 10:15: 11:3, Prov. 12:13; 20:17; Prov. 14:11; 14:25; 15:27; 28:16.

19Prov. 12:19; 21:6.

20Prov. 29:12; 19:28.

21Prov 25:18; 26:l8b.

22Prov. 16:13; 17:7.

23Mt. 5:33-37 and cf. the entire cycle of the Laban and Jacob stories where the two are constantly trying to outmaneuver one mother (Gen. 29-)1).

24Ps. 32:3-4.

25Ps. 36:1-3.

26Prov. 19:22; 20:6.

27Ex. 32:22-24.

28Prov. 20:14.

29Prov. 21:6; Prov. 20:10.

30Prov. 10:18; 26:28.

31Ps. 62:3-4; Ps. 119:69.

32Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18.

33Gen. 26:6-11.

34Lev. 19:18; Dent. 6:4-5; Mk. 12:28-34;Mt. 22:34-40; Lk. 10:25-28: Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14; 1 John 2:7-11; James 2:8.

351 Sam. 19:9-17.

36Gen. 37, 39-50.

37Gen. 42:7

38Gen. 42:15.

39Gen. 42:16.

40Gen. 42:24

41Gen. 42:20.

42Gen. 42:25.

43Gen. 43:23.

44Gen. 43:29.

45Gen. 43:33.

46Gcn. 44:1.

47Gen. 44:2.

48Gen. 44:4,17.

49Gen. 4:3.

502 Sam. 11:2-5.

512 Sam. 11:6-25.

522 Sam. 12:1-10.

53For another response to Kotesky, see Johnson (1979).


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