Is there any “official” term to describe a study in which subjects were deceived about the real purpose of the research?

I am talking about studies that purposefully hide the real research questions from the subjects so as to prevent demand effects from influencing the results.

To make it more explicit: In my case, I tell people to watch a series of video clips from an online portal to describe the contents. What people don't know is that some of the videos are (purposefully) significantly distorted. I record their reactions to it (e.g. physiogically) — but people still think they're just describing videos.

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    $\begingroup$ I believe you call that "Every Experiment". I have yet to see a study where the participants are completely informed about the study before they have finished the experiment. Joking aside, I don't believe that there is a particular term for it. If you want to mention something like that in your paper, you could say "after completion of the task, the subject were fully debriefed about the goals of the experiment" $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2016 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your comment. Of course I know that we'd not inform participants about the hypotheses of the study. Also, I am not reporting on results – instead, I am (on a meta level) talking about such experiments. However, what is not always done is that the task subjects have to complete is absolutely not the primary goal of interest for researchers. For example, people are asked to perform a task and what we really measure is not their task performance or execution at all, but another hidden measure. $\endgroup$
    – slhck
    Jun 13, 2016 at 11:41
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    $\begingroup$ The relevant section 8.03 in the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct does not employ a proper term, however, experiments with that design are often called »deception experiment« or »deceptive experiment« in the literature. $\endgroup$
    – huh
    Jun 13, 2016 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ @huh That is a very good comment. Could you please rephrase it as a proper answer below? $\endgroup$
    – slhck
    Jun 13, 2016 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ @VinceCurto No - masking ('blinding') is a standard procedure in any clinical trial. Withholding information or giving inappropriate information is borderline unethical and that's what this question is about. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jun 16, 2016 at 19:44

2 Answers 2


The relevant section 8.03 in the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct does not employ a proper term. In the literature, »deception/deceptive study/experiment/method(s)« are sometimes used, however not in the sense of a technical term – most often the matter is paraphrased as in »studies that use deception«.

The Milgram experiment(s) prominently employed deception, and the latter is most often discussed in the context of social psychology. On the other hand, there are much less clear cases. Robin Kramer in his comment is right that often it is not clear for the subject which variables are actually measured by some technique in a straightforward sense – think of a questionnaire that is part of a job application procedure, or e.g. indirect techniques for measuring attitudes.

Since deception as a clear-cut methodical device has been prominently used in social psychology, let's take a look at a popular text book:

In this kind of experiment, it’s essential that the participant experience contrived events as if they were real; this is called a deception experiment. Deception in social psychological research involves misleading participants about the true purpose of a study or the events that transpire. (Aronson/Wilson/Akert/Sommers (2016): Social Psychology (9th ed.), p. 46)

Finally, Aronson et al. (2016) give the following references:

  • Christensen, L. (1988). Deception in psychological research: When is its use justified? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 664–675.
  • Epley, E., & Hu , C. (1998). Suspicion, affective response, and education benefit as a result of deception in psychology research. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 759–768.
  • Finney, P. D. (1987). When consent information refers to risk and deception: Implications for social research. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 2, 37–48.
  • Gerdes, E. P. (1979). College students’ reactions to social psychological experiments involving deception. Journal of Social Psychology, 107, 99–110.
  • Sharpe, D., Adair, J. G., & Roese, N. J. (1992). Twenty years of deception research: A decline in subjects’ trust? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 585–590.

Another term is "objective personality tests" (OPT) in the tradition of R. B. Cattell. A classical OPT would consist in giving a stressful task and observing emotional reactions while the subject is focused on the task; for instance a task requiring fine motor skills.

A further term is "performance testing of personality" as exposed in the paper linked here (it was free to read at the time of writing).

While the question refers to "a study" I would rather think about the "deceptiveness" of the methods deployed in a study since they are the part of the study which will be relevant to the subject's experience of the study. The study itself in my eyes seems to be relevant to scholarly readers who will be informed about the methods.

References: Santostefano, S. (1962). Performance testing of personality. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development, 8(2), 83-97.


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