CCSNH Colleges And Programs

Deception & Debriefing

The CCSNH IRB acknowledges that deception and incomplete disclosure may at times be necessary when researching social and human behavior to avoid study bias or explore hypotheses requiring participant misdirection. At the same time, the IRB considers research involving deception a matter of particular seriousness. With deception, participants cannot give true informed consent. The IRB must thus, to preserve research ethics, give special consideration to studies involving deception through alterations to the informed consent process. 


  • “Deception” occurs when a researcher gives false information about any aspect of the research to the participant;
  • “Incomplete disclosure” occurs when the researcher does not disclose the true purpose or nature of the research;
  • “Debriefing” happens after the research and includes explaining the deception to the participant, responding to the participant about the use of deception, and obtaining true informed consent.

Examples of deception[1]:

  • Participants are told they are working with a group of other participants on a task, but in actuality, they are the only participant in the study. The other “participants” are actually confederates or research staff acting as participants.
  • Participants are told they scored poorly on a task, when in actuality, they are scored poorly regardless of their performance.

Examples of incomplete disclosures:

  • Researcher instructs the participant to complete a puzzle; however, the researcher does not mention to the participant that the puzzle cannot be completed.
  • Participants are told that the questionnaire they are completing measures anxiety. In reality, the questionnaire is a combination of questionnaires whose purpose is to measure both depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.


Research which includes deception in the study design must provide the following information:

  • Justification for the use of deception: The American Psychological Association’s code necessitates that the research demonstrate the potential for substantial scientific and educational value. The researcher must further explain why there is no viable alternative procedure. In the application the researcher should provide information on similar uses of deception in similar studies, including description of any harm arising from such studies. If there is a possibility of short-term psychological distress for participants, the researcher must explain how distress will be diminished: for instance, during a debriefing process.
  • Pain or severe emotional distress: Researchers are prohibited from using deception when there is a reasonable risk deception may lead to extreme emotional distress or physical pain.
  • Debriefing: As soon as possible after the deception, researchers must apprise participants of the deception or incomplete disclosure and provide them with an IRB-approved debriefing document. Debriefing should consist of a personal interview so that participants may ask questions as needed and also a written debriefing statement. There may be conditions when a debriefing statement alone may be used. The researcher should provide a script for debriefing interviews during the IRB review process.
  • Waiver of Consent: The IRB must approve an alteration to the consent form process. An alteration can be granted if the IRB documents all of the following (see §45 CFR 46 (d)):
    • The research involves no more than minimal risk to the participants;
    • The waiver or alternation will not adversely affect the rights and welfare of the participants;
    • The research could not practically be carried out without the waiver or alteration, and;
    • Whenever appropriate, the participants will be provided with additional pertinent information after the procedure.
  • Privacy and Confidentiality: Research protocols must discuss specific procedures which will be used to protect the confidentiality of the data collected. Participants must be given an opportunity to disallow the use of their data after it is collected.
  • Waiver of use of collected data: Participants must be provided the option of disallowing the use of participant data after they learn the true nature of the research methods.

Debriefing Recommendations

Researchers are strongly encouraged to debrief participants as soon as possible after the research. Below, please find some general recommendations for the debriefing document to be provided to all research participants:

  • Document title should read “Debriefing Statement”;
  • Document should contain study title;
  • Provide complete contact information for the principal investigator (name, address, phone, and email);
  • Thank participants for their time and efforts;
  • Discuss the purpose and rationale for the study in the simplest terms possible; avoid using complicated terminology;
  • Explain the components of the study that involved deception and why deception was justified;
  • Explain how data will be used and provide participants the opportunity to disallow use of their data;
  • If deception involved audio or video recording of participants, participants have the right to refuse permission to use the recordings in the study. The researcher must destroy recordings within 24 hours after the participant informs the researcher of his/her decision.

[1] (Links to an external site.) Examples taken from Northwestern University’s IRB, retrieved from