You may have wondered whether the participants in the video game study that we just discussed were told about the research hypothesis ahead of time. In fact, these experiments both used a cover story—a false statement of what the research was really about. The students in the video game study were not told that the study was about the effects of violent video games on aggression, but rather that it was an investigation of how people learn and develop skills at motor tasks like video games and how these skills affect other tasks, such as competitive games. The participants in the task performance study were not told that the research was about task performance. In some experiments, the researcher also makes use of an experimental confederate—a person who is actually part of the experimental team but who pretends to be another participant in the study. The confederate helps create the right “feel” of the study, making the cover story seem more real.
In many cases, it is not possible in social psychology experiments to tell the research participants about the real hypotheses in the study, and so cover stories or other types of deception may be used. You can imagine, for instance, that if a researcher wanted to study racial prejudice, he or she could not simply tell the participants that this was the topic of the research because people may not want to admit that they are prejudiced, even if they really are. Although the participants are always told—through the process of informed consent—as much as is possible about the study before the study begins, they may nevertheless sometimes be deceived to some extent. At the end of every research project, however, participants should always receive a complete debriefing in which all relevant information is given, including the real hypothesis, the nature of any deception used, and how the data are going to be used.