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Background: There is a lack of empirical data on lay attitudes toward different sorts of deception in medicine. However, lay attitudes toward deception should be taken into account when we consider whether deception is ever permissible in a medical context. The objective of this study was to examine lay attitudes of U.S. citizens toward different sorts of deception across different medical contexts. Methods: A one-time online survey was administered to U.S. users of the Amazon "Mechanical Turk" website. Participants were asked to answer questions regarding a series of vignettes depicting different sorts of deception in medical care, as well as a question regarding their general attitudes toward truth-telling. Results: Of the 200 respondents, the majority found the use of placebos in different contexts to be acceptable following partial disclosure but found it to be unacceptable if it involved outright lying. Also, 55.5% of respondents supported the use of sham surgery in clinical research, although 55% claimed that it would be unacceptable to deceive patients in this research, even if this would improve the quality of the data from the study. Respondents supported fully informing patients about distressing medical information in different contexts, especially when the patient is suffering from a chronic condition. In addition, 42.5% of respondents believed that it is worse to deceive someone by providing the person with false information than it is to do so by giving the person true information that is likely to lead them to form a false belief, without telling them other important information that shows it to be false. However, 41.5% believed that the two methods of deception were morally equivalent. Conclusions: Respondents believed that some forms of deception were acceptable in some circumstances. While the majority of our respondents opposed outright lying in medical contexts, they were prepared to support partial disclosure and the use of placebos when it is in the patient's interests or when it is what the person would want. These results support the position that physicians should be allowed a greater degree of authority to make a professional judgment about whether deception might be morally warranted by the circumstances, provided that it doesn't involve outright lying.

Original publication




Journal article


AJOB Empir Bioeth

Publication Date





31 - 38


autonomy, clinical ethics, deception, placebo