Evaluating the Therapeutic Misconception

The "therapeutic misconception," described by Paul Appelbaum and colleagues more than 20 years ago, refers to the tendency of participants in clinical trials to confuse the design and conduct of research with personalized medical care. Although the "therapeutic misconception" has become a term of art in research ethics, little systematic attention has been devoted to the ethical significance of this phenomenon. This article examines critically the way in which Appelbaum and colleagues formulate what is at stake in the therapeutic misconception, paying particular attention to assumptions and implications that clinical trial participation disadvantages research participants as compared with receiving standard medical care. After clarifying the ethical significance of the therapeutic misconception with respect to the decision making of patients, we offer policy recommendations for obtaining informed consent to participation in clinical trials.