Illusions of Reality

A History of Deception in Social Psychology

By James H. Korn

Subjects: Ethics
Paperback : 9780791433089, 204 pages, March 1997
Hardcover : 9780791433072, 204 pages, March 1997

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Table of contents


1. Varieties of Deception

Deception in Strange Places

How Would You Like a Shot in the Arm?

May I Watch You Urinate?

Would You Help a Bloody Stranger?

Defining Deception

The Significance of Deception in Research

Intrinsic Interest

Social Significance of the Research

An Overlooked Topic in History

Ethical Questions

The Image of Psychology

Deception Is a Characteristic of American Culture

Deception in Other Social Sciences

A Sense of History

2. The Growth of Deception

The First Deceptions

The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology: 1921 to 1947

Surveys of Deception: 1948-1989

Table 1: Percent and Number of Articles Using Deception in Various Journals from 1948 to 1989

3. Social Psychology Becomes Experimental

Experimental Social Psychology

4. Lewin's Legacy

Lewin in Germany

Lewin in America

The Father of Deception

5. Military Deception

Assessment of Men

Stress and Deception in Military Research

The "Ditching" Situation

Three Threats to Life and Limb


Military Medicine

6. A Voice of Independence

Group Pressure: Independence and Conformity

An Independent Voice

7. Leon Festinger, The Seminal Theorist

The Seminal Theorist

Predissonance Years

Dissonance and the Shaping of Social Psychology

Research as Theater. I

Prophecy and Privacy

The Festinger Family

8. Stanley Milgram and the Illusion of Obedience

Behavioral Study of Obedience


Variations on a Theme

The Ethics of Obedience Research

Research as Theater. II

9. The Stage Production Era

Growth and Change

Directions for Deception

Ubiquitous Watergate

Ubiquitous Deception

Chemical Deception

Helping in False Emergencies

Aggression and "Pleasuring"

Life with Bogus Strangers

Into the Nineties

10. Questions of Right and Wrong

Psychologists' Ethical Principles for Research

Informed Consent in Medicine and Law

The Deception Debate

Vulnerable Experimenters

Did Psychologists Break the Law?

The Albany Shock Experiments

The Pittsburgh Victims

Research Ethics in 1993

11. Deception in Psychology and American Culture

Con Men and Sitcoms

Popular Philosophy

Social Psychology and Academic Life

12. The Power of Positive Illusions

Acceptable Deception and Effective Illusions

Social Psychology as a Positive Force




Examines the origins and the development of the use of deception in psychological research to create illusions of reality.


Some psychologists think it is almost always wrong to deceive research subjects, while others think the use of deception is essential if significant human problems are to receive scientific study. Illusions of Reality shows how deception is used in psychological research to create illusions of reality—situations that involve research subjects without revealing the true purpose of the experiment. The book examines the origins and development of this practice that have lead to some of the most dramatic and controversial studies in the history of psychology.

Social psychology may be the only area of research where the research methods sometimes are as interesting as the results. The most impressive experiments in this field produce their impact by creating situations that lead research subjects to believe that they are taking part in something other than the true experiment, or situations where subjects are not even aware that an experiment is being conducted. These illusions of reality are created by using various forms of deception, such as providing false information to people about how they perform on tests or by using actors who play roles. The research described in Illusions of Reality includes significant and controversial experiments in the history of psychology that sometimes took on the characteristics of dramatic stage productions. The ethical issues raised by this research are discussed, and the practice of using deception in research is placed in the context of American cultural values.

James H. Korn is Professor in the Department of Psychology, Saint Louis University, and Fellow of the American Psychological Association and of the American Psychological Society.


"This book provides an interesting slice of the history of psychology that is usually ignored or simply an aside in other books of the history of psychology. " — Neil E. Grunberg, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences