Bogus Pipeline: Use in studies of drug use and ethical issues

What is a ‘bogus pipeline’ method (BPL) used in social research? One vexing problem for researchers who collect self-report data is whether subjects are providing truthful responses. This can be especially problematic for questions that are sensitive or have a degree of ‘social desirability’.

According to Wikipedia, the BPL is a technique first used by psychology professor Harold Sigall, who wanted to study prejudice of whites towards blacks. The concern was whether reported declines in prejudice was really due to less racial prejudice, or if whites were reporting more socially desired answers. In order to reduce this potential bias, he had subject connected to a fake lie detector. Subjects were more likely to give honest answers to questions if they thought they are being monitored and their true answers would be revealed.


Here are some recent (and not so recent) articles on the use of BPL in studies of alcohol and drug use:

2009: Adolescent alcohol consumption: biomarkers PEth and FAEE in relation to interview and questionnaire data

2008: Enhancing self-report of adolescent smoking: the effects of bogus pipeline and anonymity

2003: “Start to stop”: results of a randomised controlled trial of a smoking cessation programme for teens

A paper by Aguinis and Handelsman (1997) provide an ethical critique of the BPL. To summarize, their criticism levels on several points: 1) Researchers using deception in studies typically mislead subjects by omission, rather than actively lying to them; 2) Subjects may feel coerced in revealing sensitive and potentially illegal information (such as illegal drug use); 3) Forcing subjects to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves (e.g., racist or prejudiced attitudes) may result in distress or harmful psychological consequences; 4) The authors point out that may BPL studies involve samples of children, who may be particularly vulnerable to psychological harm; 5) Subjects may feel coerced in revealing information they would have otherwise not wished to provide, and thus nullifying the freedom of avoiding the question by providing false information. The authors present arguments from two different perspectives in a dialogue format, which makes an interesting read. The full-text article is available via MSU libraries.

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