Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Deception in Psychological ResearchThe Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

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The use of deception in psychological research can be traced back to the 150’s. It was an effort to establish a scientific basis for social psychology. Deception made it possible for researchers to observe and measure behavior in a controlled environment, and neutralize attempts by subjects to respond in whatever manner they perceived to be correct, thus compromising the results of the experiment.

Deception, according to the American Heritage Dictionary (11), is “the use of an act or practice causing a person to believe what is not true”. A simpler explanation, as it applies to psychology, would be to either deliberately conceal relevant information from subjects, or give them false or misleading information. The following is a cost-benefit approach to the use of deception in psychological research.

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The American Psychological Association integrated guidelines for deceptive research into its 17 Code of Ethics. Section 6.15 of the current specification in the most recent revision of the Ethical Principles, which came out in 1, states that

i. Psychologists do not conduct a study involving deception unless they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study’s prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and that equally effective alternative procedures that do not use deception are not feasible.

ii. Psychologists never deceive research participants about significant aspects that would affect their willingness to participate, such as physical risks, discomfort, or unpleasant emotional experiences.

iii. Any other deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment must be explained to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the research (APA, 1).

I believe deception is appropriate in certain circumstances, provided the researcher abide by the recommended code of ethics. Studies of human behavior and attitude can be accurately conducted if the participants’ responses are as natural as possible. However, studies have been conducted on human subjects that have been unethical and immoral. One such experiment, the Tuskegee Study, symbolizes the unbelievable disregard for human life that takes place in the name of science.

In 1, the American Government promised 400 poor, African American men � all residents of Macon County, Alabama � free treatment for Bad Blood, a euphemism for Syphilis, which was epidemic in the country. The men never received treatment and became unwitting subjects for a medical investigation, The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. What the Public Health Service (PHS) was interested in was not treating this deadly disease, but using these men as a laboratory for studying the long-term effects of untreated syphilis. They should have obtained consent from the subjects in a study of disease that may cost them prolonged suffering and indeed their very lives, but they did not. The government picked subjects least able to defend themselves, the black community. They even offered a burial stipend of $50.00 to be paid to their survivors, knowing full well that they were going to withhold treatment from these men and therefore sentencing them to death! They gave no regard to these men’s human rights, and acted as though this study was sanctioned, premeditated genocide. By the time Jean Heller broke this story in July 17 - 4 decades later -, over 100 of the infected men had died, and others suffered from severe syphilis related conditions that may have contributed to their later deaths. PHS officials maintained they had done nothing wrong and no apologies were ever tendered. On the contrary, these officials made it clear that they felt they were acting in good faith. The callousness, blatant disrespect for life and medical misconduct exhibited was and is still mind-boggling. In a case such as this, it becomes obvious that deception of this kind is completely unacceptable. This is one of the worst examples of course, but any study that would deceive its participants of aspects of the study that would likely cause them to be unwilling to participate, is not justified at all.

Problems associated with deception during psychological research can be overcome. Researchers have to make ethical considerations before conducting studies. As indicated in the APA’s Ethical Principles, all possible alternatives to deception should always be considered. A thorough debriefing is a must, during which the participant’s reaction to the deception should be assessed carefully.

It may be true that deception is a necessary component of psychology research, as long as the risk for harm is minimal and temporary. However, it is important to note that habitual deception of subjects engenders distrust and suspicion and that manipulation and deception can lead to such serious consequences as dehumanization of research subjects. When the cost of the study far outweighs any benefit, as in the Tuskegee Study, deception is then immoral, unethical and totally unacceptable.

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