When is Deception Ethically Justified in Research?


When is Deception Ethically Justified in Research?

Brief Abstract

The purpose of this study was to examine some of the factors leading to "bystander apathy" (the failure of witnesses to help others in distress). Some researchers had suggested that people are less likely to help a victim if many other bystanders are present. Piliavin and Piliavin disagreed with this explanation and proposed that people are less likely to help a victim if they feel helping may place them in danger. The researchers observed the helping behaviors of subway passengers in response to a series of "staged crises" in which a confederate acting as a "victim" with a cane feigned a collapse on a crowded train and did not appear to bleed (indicating a nondangerous situation) or appeared to bleed from the mouth (indicating a potentially dangerous situation). During the experiment some of the passengers panicked when they saw the "bleeding victim" and some attempted to pull the emergency cord to stop the train. The finding that passengers were less likely to help the "bleeding" victim irrespective of how many other bystanders were present, supported the hypothesis that the perceived danger of the situation (rather than the number of other witnesses present) determines helping behavior.

Extended Abstract

Purpose of the Study:

The purpose of this study was to explore some of the reasons underlying bystander apathy to the distress of others. At the time this study was conducted, there was a great deal of media coverage of Kitty Genovese; a woman viciously murdered outside her apartment in Queens, New York City. Although the victim screamed for help, not one of the thirty-eight neighbors who watched the attack from their windows came to her assistance or even called the police. Researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley proposed that the presence of other bystanders inhibits observers from helping, because they feel a "diffusion of responsibility."


Piliavin and Piliavin offered a different hypothesis. They proposed that the observation of an emergency is an emotionally aversive situation that an observer will attempt to terminate through direct help, indirect help (notifying others) or leaving the scene. Whether a bystander will offer direct help is determined by how costly (dangerous) the bystander believes the situation to be. The primary hypothesis tested in this study was: As the perceived cost for helping increases, bystanders are less likely to offer direct help and more likely to provide indirect help or leave the scene.


To test Piliavin and Piliavin's theory of bystander intervention, the behavior of passengers was observed when an experimenter, posing as a "victim" with a cane, "collapsed" in a moving subway car. To experimentally manipulate the "cost" of helping, in half of the conditions the victim "bled" from the mouth and in half he did not bleed. The researchers assumed that the presence of blood increased the cost of helping because the sight of blood should arouse feelings of fear and revulsion in the typical bystander. The researchers staged approximately 42 of these incidents, each lasting approximately 3 minutes (the time between station stops). Problems encountered during the experiment included discovery and harassment by transit authority police; potentially dangerous actions on the part of real bystanders (e.g., attempting to pull the emergency cord to stop the train); and passenger panic during some of the blood trials.


As predicted, bystanders exposed to the "bloody" victim were less likely to offer direct help and more likely to offer indirect help or no help at all when compared to those exposed to the bloodless victim. The researchers also found that contrary to the diffusion of responsibility hypothesis, the number of bystanders present did not significantly inhibit helping behavior. Overall, males were more likely to offer direct help than females. Bloody "victims" were more likely to be helped by bystanders of their own race, while race had no effect on helping behavior for bloodless "victims."


The results of the Piliavin & Piliavin study support the theory that the perceived cost of helping a victim, rather than a sense of diffused responsibility with other bystanders, primarily determines whether a bystander will help a person in need.

Questions on the Ethics of this Research

  1. How would you evaluate the scientific validity and social value of this study? Did the study adequately test the researchers' hypothesis? Was it important to conduct this study in a naturalistic setting? Was it methodologically important to keep potential participants naive about the fact that a study was being conducted? Did members of society benefit from knowledge generated by the study? Did the research participants benefit from their participation in the study?
  2. How would you evaluate the potential costs of the study to science, society, and those participating in the research? Could the subway riders who saw the "victim" collapse be harmed by the conduct of this experiment? Were participants exposed to any potential harm above that which they might experience in their daily lives in public places? Were there ways that the psychologists could have conducted this study differently in an attempt to minimize potential harm?
  3. Was the autonomy (the right to self-determination) of research participants jeopardized in this study? Was participant privacy violated? Is informed consent necessary for naturalistic studies conducted in public settings? Could the hypothesis have been validly tested without using a deceptive research design? Are there ways to respect participant autonomy and privacy and still use deception?
  4. Taking into account the investigators' dual responsibility to produce scientifically valid knowledge and to protect participants, what recommendations would you make regarding the conduct of this study if it were proposed today?

Related readings on Deception in Research

  • Baumrind, D. (1985). Research using intentional deception: Ethical issues revisited. American Psychologist, 40, 1675-174.
  • Cook, S W. (1975) A comment on the ethical issues involved in the West, Gunn & Cherkicky's "Ubiquitous Watergate: Attributional analysis." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32 66-68.
  • Fisher, C.B., & Fyrberg, D. (1994). Participant partners: College students weigh the costs and benefits of deceptive research. American Psychologist, 49, 417-427.
  • Koocher, G. P. (1977). Bathroom behavior and human dignity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 120-121.
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Cite this page: "When is Deception Ethically Justified in Research?" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 8/4/2006 OEC Accessed: Sunday, December 11, 2016 <www.onlineethics.org/Topics/RespResearch/ResCases/psychology/deception.aspx>