Deception research has shown us some of the most thought-provoking and controversial experiments in social psychology. Milgram’s obedience experiments and conformity studies have provided insight into the mechanisms which are triggered under the command of an authority figure, or how group pressure works. Such studies can help to explain why no one intervenes in cases of child abuse or why the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison occurred.
However, participation in studies where those taking part are not informed of what the researchers are actually studying may have serious consequences for the participants. It is one thing to feel deceived, but it is also possible to experience more severe reactions as a result of what is revealed about oneself. An example is Milgram’s experiments in which the participants were led to believe that they were administering agonising electric shocks to another person (an actor) under the direction of an authority figure. When, following the experiment, the study participants understood what they might be capable of, this was a horrifying realisation.
The principle of freely given informed consent to participation is one of the core ethical principles of research, and may only be deviated from in very special cases. Such a case was the endorsement by the National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH) in the spring of 2009 permitting researchers to send fictitious job applications in order to reveal discrimination against job applicants with a non-Norwegian background. The results of the study sparked public debate when they were published in January 2012.
This article has been translated from Norwegian by Jane Thompson, Akasie språktjenester AS.