Researchers are grappling with the ethical dilemma of deceiving their subjects "in the name of science," reports Shirley S. Wang in The Wall Street Journal (8/26/14). The argument goes that there are some circumstances under which failing to tell subjects they are being studied is the only way to get accurate information. Geoff Pearson of University of Liverpool applied this premise in a ten-year study of "the behavior of rowdy soccer fans in the UK" after deciding "that just talking to them wasn’t good enough."
So, instead "he joined the fans at football matches to watch how the crowd behavior went from calm to rowdy … He wrote down his observations while huddled in the restroom, talked into a recorder by pretending it was a cellphone and jotted down copious notes after matches. Most important, he didn’t tell fans he was studying them." This flies in the face of "one of the main tenets of ethical research … that participants should be informed that they’re being studied and for what purpose."
Kypros Kypri of University of Newcastle meanwhile reports that "just asking heavy drinkers about their alcohol use sometimes changes their behavior." In this case, the research doubled as a kind of intervention, but without subjects knowing it. Kypros argues that the health benefits outweighed the ethical issues. In Geoff Pearson’s case, the undercover research helped improve policing at soccer matches. A key insight was that disorderly conduct was more likely when police "dressed in riot gear." Things went more smoothly "when police engaged in friendly conversation with the crowd."