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The Case of the YouTube Assignment - Do You See an Ethical Dilemma?

Help! Are Students Exhibiting Moral Decay or Media Savvy?

This entry is co-authored by Aaron S. Richmond, Ph.D., who is a faculty member at Metropolitan State College of Denver and a nationally known educator. A few weeks ago he told me about an exercise he did in one of his classes that had a somewhat unexpected outcome. Aaron and I invite you to consider the ethical, social, and pedagogical implications:

A few weeks back, after watching some particularly bad student videos on YouTube, I (Aaron) decided to have my own intro psychology students try some! I created an optional classroom assignment in which I asked students to film a 1-2 minute video illustrating Bandura's Observational Learning Theory. To my amazement, over 90% of my students submitted videos! They approached the assignment earnestly, creatively, and sincerely. Honestly, it was one of the most enjoyable assignments to grade I've ever given. I spent more time than I usually do grading a set of papers--watching their YouTube posts, sometimes laughing to the point of crying (e.g.,;

As I reflected on the assignment, it struck me that about 20% of my students made their videos in public where they "tricked" innocent bystanders into mimicking modeled behavior. For example, one group conducted the "invisible rope experiment." The three students were located on a major campus thoroughfare. One student was located on each side of the walkway. They pretended to be pulling a rope while the third student pretended to high-step over the rope. Subsequently, people mimicked the third student's behavior by high-stepping over the invisible rope.

It made me feel uneasy that my students were tricking unsuspecting people. I shared my story with Mitch, and we started to explore.

Downtown Denver

Our first question: Where did students get this tendency toward trickery? One possibility: Psychology itself has a long history of using deception in research. The most famous example is the Milgram "obedience" studies, in which unsuspecting participants gave what they thought were painful shocks to another person. These experiments were very controversial, and some psychologists (e.g., Baumrind, 1964) argued that the deception involved was not worth the new knowledge that Milgram provided about our willingness to inflict pain just because we're told to by an authority.

In some quarters psychologists have the reputation of saying anything to anybody just to see the reaction. But psychologists argue that they do not deceive people willy-nilly (did we really use that word?). The APA Ethics Code says that deception should only be used as a last resort, when there's no other way to test an important hypothesis. The Code also says that psychologists should undo the deception after the experiment is over-this is called "debriefing," during which each participant is told the true purposes of the study and given a chance to have their questions answered. When done with respect and with sensitivity to participants' reactions, the ends of deception-new knowledge-can justify the means.

The long tradition of psychological research may have been one factor in students' use of trickery. The trends and influences might be broader. As we discussed the videos more, we were reminded of the ABC News "What Would You Do?" segments in which John Quiñones intentionally and with premeditation put unsuspecting citizens into morally compromising dilemmas.

Deception and lying on TV has its own long traditions. Some of us are old enough to remember the original "Candid Camera," Joe Isuzu, and that show where potential brides were told that some bachelor was a millionaire.

Our next question: Did the students do unethical things by lying to passers-by just to prove a point, get a grade, or pass the time? And was it unethical to make the assignment without explicitly prohibiting the deceptive videos? If we don't think there were ethical violations (and we don't), we could still take a "positive ethics" approach and ask whether the instructor's or the students' behavior was ethically competent or ethically excellent. Consider these factors:

1. How bad was the deception? How potentially embarrassing (or in other ways harmful) is the situation in which we put research participants, or innocent bystanders? Research participants and people on the street might feel exploited when they are deceived.

Another form of harm comes from potential violations of confidentiality. People's privacy may be violated by being tricked into revealing parts of themselves they would not have done if told the truth.

2. Should we undue the deception? Do we owe participants in our studies, or videos, as explanation of what happened to them? And how do we determine the explanation itself might make people feel worse? A general issue: Can we lie to people to spare them suffering that we caused ourselves? At what point are we just trying to hide our own behavior under the guise of preventing bad feelings?

3. How important is the outcome? What are the goals or motivations involved? It could be argued that the primary motivation of ABC News is not the application of scientific methods to create reliable new knowledge about human behavior. Rather, the primary motivation may be simple pandering to the voyeurism of the American Public in an attempt to garner higher ratings and advertising revenue. Is the purpose of Quiñones' show important enough to justify the lying?

As psychologists we can argue that the "purer" motivation to do science justifies deception more than the profit motive. Might some students have been motivated more by the fun of deception rather than (or in addition to) trying to illustrate a theory? What if students felt that deceptive or tricky videos might get higher grades? If indeed we did (unintentionally, of course) give higher grades to deceptive videos because they struck us as more "creative," is that a value we want to teach our students?

4. How disrespectful is the deception? This is a bit fuzzier than the other concepts. Some folks simply don't like to be lied to or deceived even if no harm is done.

The bottom line: When does deception cross the line from a useful tool intended primarily to create knowledge to an inappropriate, disrespectful exploitation of fellow human beings for the primary purposes of making money, entertaining, earning higher course grades, getting tenure, or achieving other goals? Maybe there's no ethical dilemma, but we believe that incorporating these ethical factors into our decisions will help us become better teachers.


Baumrind. D. (1964). Some thoughts on ethics of research: After reading Milgram's "Behavioral Study of Obedience." American Psychologist, 19, 421-423.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2011 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

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