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This morning I received a blast email in a group of which I'm a member, offering for free to the first taker a set of items I have never had, nor do I think I will ever have, interest in owning. I thought, "Now, why don't they just throw away those things? Nobody is going to want that set!" I was surprised, then, at just how quickly the "seller" emailed the group back and declared in ALLCAPS that the items were TAKEN!!!!! (with many exclamation marks), clearly seeking to stem the flow of some email bombardment of interested recipients.

For half a moment, I thought of posting a similar offer, just to see how much interest there would be, and then just telling all interested parties that the items had been claimed by someone else. It immediately struck me, however, that this would certainly be unethical, but perhaps could be done as part of a study*. Now, though, I'm curious: Is it ethical, that is, in accordance with Jewish law and philosophy, to conduct a psychological survey of this sort? There is no tangible harm, but it is false and misleading, though it would satisfy some curious (and potentially psychologically valuable) need to know how people react to certain stimuli. But it's a lie. But we can learn from it. But it's misleading.

I can think of a handful of issues, but I'm curious to know what recognized Posekim and traditional Jewish sources have to say about such matters.

*Please note: I am not a psychologist, nor do I have the wherewithal (or time) to conduct such a study. I just want to know if these things are deemed ethical in Judaism.

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    There are two general factors that would go against this type of study - 1) ona'ah - loosely translated as oppressing another Jew (emotionally), and 2) Being dishonest. Since you state that you are not a psychologist, and have no tangible purpose for doing this research study, IMO, you'd prob. be violating one or both of the above concepts. As for performing a "valid" research study for medical purposes, that delves into another area, where it might be permitted. – DanF Jan 14 '16 at 19:58
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    @DanF what if it's a psychology student? Or a sociology student? Or a political science student? Or an education student? Surely these (and many other) fields can gain from understanding human reaction to certain stimuli ("Free Junk! Buy now!"). – Seth J Jan 14 '16 at 20:03
  • I meant them, as well. However, even in such cases, it's unclear if even a student can co-operate in an "unethical" research study conducted / funded by a professor unless for medical research. My offhand opinion on it. You asked an interesting question. Within all this, though, I would lean to using another more honest method to obtain similar results. And, of course, there's nothing that states that you need to do this type of study, anyway. Undoubtedly, others can do it. – DanF Jan 14 '16 at 20:08
  • An important principle of Judaism is "אתי עשה ודחי ללא תעשה" (Yevomos 21a): the benefit of a positive Mitzvah overrides the negative one(s). All you need to do is to find a Halachic justification for your test, i.g. find a serious benefit for the society, like warning people or preventing any further גניבת דעת and הונאה by debunking the fraud system, preventing wasting of time and resources (השבת אבידה to the employer) and the likes. – Al Berko Aug 2 '18 at 12:14
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Aruch Hashulchan 228:1 says that included in the prohibition of onaas d'varim, causing pain with words, is this:

He shall not say to his fellow, "For how much [money] are you willing to give [me] this item?" [if] he has no desire to buy it. Or, if donkey-drivers were asking him [if they could] buy grain [from him], he shall not tell them, "Go to so-and-so" [if] he knows that that [person] has no grain and will be dishonored — and even if he's a rich person who won't be dishonored, nonetheless the donkey-drivers will be embarrassed. And likewise all similar things.

The first case in the AHS (which is actually from much earlier sources), asking about a sale when there's no intent to buy, seems similar to your case, asking about a sale when there's no intent to sell. It may be similar enough that the halacha in your case, too, is that one may not make such an offer.

The last case in the AHS, "the donkey-drivers will be embarrassed" by requesting grain of a rich person who has none, seems somewhat similar to your case also. The study participants are not individually approached: they merely see the offer posted. Their response, then, is the first individual contact they have with the supposed seller; and a failed such contact can be embarrassing.

As always, consult your rabbi if this becomes relevant to you.

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  • But for a to'eles would it still be assur? This goes into onaas devarim l'toeles issues, which have not received clear answers on MY. – LN6595 Jan 17 '16 at 2:44

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