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Section Six: Human Participation in Research
CASE STUDY: A Test of Anxiety
While it is allowable to require students to participate in experiments, this experiment is morally prohibited because volunteers were unnecessarily deceived.
Deception is rarely acceptable in social science research and is never morally permitted when the results can be achieved with non-deceptive means. Deception is a problem in research, as in regular life, in that deception is possible only because those deceived trust that they are being told the truth. Deception eats at the trust that is necessary for social interaction.
This experiment is deceptive in two different, but equally problematic ways. First, students are not given important relevant facts before they are asked to volunteer. Withholding important relevant information, such as the fact that the experiment is intended to show sexual deviance, rises to the level of deception. Researchers have a duty to tell such information in the process of providing the information necessary for informed consent. Deceiving in order to elicit consent is morally prohibited.
Next, the experiment is deceptive in that participants are told that the indicator lights will indicate sexual responses when they will not. The point of this experiment is not to measure sexual deviance, but to raise the participants' anxiety level as they attempt to complete a timed task. Simply telling the participants how much time is remaining as they complete the task in front of their peers can be an anxiety-provoking event. Broadcasting errors can raise anxiety. Deceiving when the same goal can be met without deception is never morally permitted.
If the experiment were about participants' attitudes toward sexual deviance, there would be no justification for conducting the experiment in a public setting.
While deception is the major ethical problem with this vignette, there are others.
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