Keep in Mind

Research involving deception is not eligible for exempt status or expedited review and must go to the full committee for review and approval.

Deception in Research

There are times, particularly in behavioral research, when investigators will find it necessary to use deception about the true purpose of the research. Deception, however, should be used only when the research question could not be answered without the use of deception.

There are two forms of deception in human subjects research:

  1. Providing false information regarding the research 

  2. Withholding information regarding the research (referred to as incomplete disclosure)

As the use of deception restricts a subject's ability to make a truly informed decision regarding his/her participation in the research - one of the essential ethical concerns in human subjects research - a waiver or alteration of documented informed consent must be requested of the IRB whenever deception is planned.

For more detailed information regarding waivers and alterations of documented informed consent, see the IRB's Informed Consent webpage. 

While the IRB understands that research involving deception is necessary in some circumstances, it must look closely at its use before granting the necessary waiver or alteration of documented informed consent. When reviewing the use of deception in human subjects research, the IRB must find all of the following criteria to be met:

  • The research involves no more than minimal risk to subjects

  • The deception will not adversely affect the rights and welfare of subjects

  • The research could not practicably be carried out without the waiver or alteration

  • Whenever appropriate, the subjects will be debriefed at the earliest time feasible, preferably at the conclusion of the subject's participation in the research

Generally speaking, deception is not allowable if the subject would not have agreed to participate in the research had s/he been fully informed about the research prior to consenting to participate.


While debriefing is a useful tool in all human subjects research, it is an essential aspect of research involving the use of deception.

The debriefing process involves the investigator providing the subject with the following:

  • A full explanation of the research

  • A description of how the subject was deceived

  • An explanation for the reasons why the research could not be conducted without the use of deception

  • The opportunity to have any questions answered regarding the research and their participation

  • The opportunity for the subject to withdraw their data from the research

  • An offer to provide the subject the results of the research once complete

  • Depending on the level of risk involved in the deception, a list of resources the subject may utilize if s/he experiences any psychological trauma related to the deception or the research itself

In some circumstances, the IRB may require the investigator to provide a debriefing document to the subjects including the above information and the contact information of the principle investigator.

The debriefing process should occur as early as is feasible, preferably immediately after the subject's participation in the research is complete. There may be times when the investigator feels this will be detrimental to the research. In such situations, the investigator must send a debriefing document to the subjects at the conclusion of all subjects' participation in the research.

In rare instances the investigator may feel that debriefing may increase the risks to subjects (for example, if the subjects were selected for participation because of a negative characteristic). Such cases are reviewed carefully by the IRB, who must agree that debriefing may cause more harm than the deception itself.

Whenever deception is proposed in a research protocol, the investigator must fully explain the necessity of the deception; if appropriate, justify why immediate debriefing is not feasible; and include in the application a script of the debriefing process or a copy of the debriefing letter, if applicable.

Keep in mind: Research involving deception is not eligible
for exempt status or expedited review and must go to
the full committee for review and approval.