Covert observation: Needed or Ethically Unsound…….You Decide

As a trainee psychologist i often ponder  the question does the end justify  the means when conducting research. Is it ethically right to stretch the nerves and break the boundaries of your participants trust through deception in order to obtain data or should this ludicrous practice be stopped.

this question is often at  the fore front of my mind when i am thinking about the option of covert observations.  it has been noted by individuals such as Roger Homan the possible advantages of sch methods. he described this particular method as  “pragmatic expedient, ideally non reactive way to gie access to a secret transaction” as  the participant wa  free from disturbance and inhibition” . Mr Hammond states a valid and accurate point as covert observations I general do not harm the individuals being observed but rather draw on on methods in order to see natural behaviours which may not be presented within the confines of an experiment. although I still feel disconcerted at the prospect of decieving participants in order to obtain valid and reliable results.

 One individual wo shares my view is Alison Lurie. Lurie states that ” particular ironic version of the means justify ends argument with an excuse that we were seeking truth , we were proposing to lie ourselves blind to the truth seekers ” . bold statements like this highlight the fact that it is never okay to decieve your participants through covert methods no matter the gain you may achieve scientific progress it may hinder.  Further more C.D Herrara states that ” deception rampant in society…… methods no more immoral than the behaviour it prevails …. morally indistinguishable from deception.”  http:/

strong poyant  arguments such as this have led me to believe that however helpful covert analysis may be in  helping individuals observe naturalistic behaviours another thing, it still counts as deception as the participant’s are often often unaware tat  they are partaking in n experiments thus  breaking ethical guidelines such as the right to with draw and the  need for full informed consent.

But in the eyes of some “the goal is justifiable”; Denzin 1968.

till next time




7 thoughts on “Covert observation: Needed or Ethically Unsound…….You Decide

  1. psuc48 says:

    I often find myself thinking that if I was told what the study was looking for when doing a psychological experiment, I would unintentionally change my performance or my response in order to make it coincide with the researcher’s expectations, after all this is perhaps one fault with the majority of participants being psychology students, as we will try and come up with an expected hypothesis. So if anything it should be considered a well practice to actually make the experiment look like it is in fact looking at something totally different, than what it actually is, I think therefore that misleading participants when indispensable is legitimate and this will guarantee a more appropriate study result. Furthermore it has been found that the majority of participants doesn’t mind being manipulated in such ways (Adair, Dushenko and Landsay, 1985).

    • psych31 says:

      yes but this is not always the caseas different people react in different ways due to individual differences. all people when they are participants in a study try to determine the nvestigators aims thuss somewhat reuin the study in some cases. this study proves the prominent impact that deception can have on th behaviour of indivoiduals of both genders during a task. studies such as thsshow rthat indiiduals can act feebly ad cange their beliefs or thoughts in ordr to lie or comply to what they belief in that situation may be cceptable een hough it would not be socially acceptable anywhere else.

  2. terrycurtis says:

    There are many times when it is needed to mislead a participant. Psychologists are looking for a natural response to a stimuli, which would not be possible if the participant was fully aware of the researchers true intentions. Obviously this does not mean that a researcher should be free to do whatever they want to a participant, but thankfully the job of an ethics commitee is to determine whether a participant would be effected badly by the deception.

    I do agree that a researchers first resposibilty has to be the protection of the participant. But I would say that the level of deception in experiments is so minute that participants are hardly effected by it at all, hey just look at the amount of deception people live with everyday, just put a television on and watch an advert.

    • psych31 says:

      yes i agree with all the above and i’m glad that deception at this scale by psychologist of our is not allowed. yes in some cases such as Milgrams electric shock study deception heps to forwar thefield and pin point the behaviours which make us complaint/ obedet in thesociety we live in although i completely disagree with deception on the scale of Zimbardo’s which is likely to become sadistic and this i blieve this is unnecassry for most sudies and the kind of behaviour exhibited in these studies are scially istrucie as are the thought processes.

  3. I think this links to a blog a read last week about whether or not an individuals online data can be used as part of a research report. In my eyes these two forms of data collection are one in the same. They both use data which is being unknowingly submitted. Drawing on research into the guidelines I found previously (link at the bottom); when an individuals consent cannot be obtained, the consent of a representative to that group or individual can be taken as consent for the mass. With respect to covert observations I see little problem with secretly recording the actions of individuals, the point made with reference to online data is that if individuals are willing to put their words or data onto the internet for anyone to see then surely that is them giving consent. I would contend that if individuals are going to act in a certain way in general public for anyone to witness then that is them giving their consent. I would add the distinction between covert observation consent and lab consent is that lab experience it is not a behaviour the individual would conduct in in day to day life, it is potentially not how they would act in society. If the research requires covertly watching individuals and recording them in the world then their behaviour is a behaviour they are comfortable with others witnessing and therefore I see no problem with it being used, individuals choose to act a certain way and a forced choice, like a button-pressing lab experiment, is not being imposed upon them, in the majority of situations individuals have complete freedom of choice, which in my opinion can equal consent.

    However, I must make it clear the difference between behaviour individuals are conducting in the world is behaviour individuals have not tried to remain a secret. If the individual has intended their behaviour to remain concealed then covert observation is wrong. I think this is where covert data collection without consent can become a grey area. What are the guidelines used to decide whether an individual has tried to keep their behaviour to themselves? Obviously I would suggest any behaviour conducted in the home is private, individuals have removed themselves from the eyes of the general public. However, what about if the individuals are obviously trying to conceal behaviour outside the home, where do the boundaries lie? I think although in some situations covert observation can be ethically unsound, there are also a multitude of situations where it is necessary and ethically acceptable.

    Having written this comment, many ideas have been creeping into my mind and I am actually going to suggest stricter guidelines are required, because there are so many different situations that could occur, it appears all covert observation are being tarred with the same brush when in fact they are mainly totally different. In some situations, in my opinion, it is acceptable and important but in others it is too unethical. I believe a distinction needs to be made and guidelines implemented. I may also write a blog on this 😀$File/ethicalguidelines.pdf

    • psych31 says:

      thank you hannah ….. but may main problem with this seemingly unethical formj of dat collection is rthat the the bbehaviuors may be taken out of context, for example envisage a sitruation where u walk in on a friend scvreaming at a notther freind you would undoutbly takle the freind who is being shouted at side as thirt position is being threatened yert you do not kbnow the context of the situation …..

      my point is taken out of context the most normaal of behaviours or reactions to others behaviours can seem almost sociopathic or posychopathic depending on the angle seen from … i strongly believe that when writtijn up a reportt whiuchh has used this technic the resaerchers should be e=xtrea carefull and take into account the individuals position and state of mind before making them out to be something that there not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s