Psychology researchers aren’t paying enough attention to debriefing their participants

Deception was a fundamental part of some of the most famous experiments in psychology – just think of Milgram’s obedience studies, in which participants thought they were administering an electric shock, or Asch’s conformity research, during which participants were tricked into believing everyone else in the room thought a line was a different length than it was. Although ethical standards have been tightened, deception is still used widely in psychology. It’s not uncommon for even the most sedate studies to involve giving participants false test feedback or misleading them about the true aims of the research. A vital element of psychological science, therefore, is to debrief participants after experimenting on them – telling them the truth about what happened and why, and listening to their feedback.

Even studies that don’t deploy trickery have the potential to leave a lasting impression – consider all the tests of new interventions aimed at outcomes from improving memory to ameliorating depression. We know from past research that simply asking someone about a behaviour, such as drug taking, increases their likelihood of indulging in that behaviour. Of course, telling participants too much up front can be detrimental to the results, and fully informed consent is therefore far rarer than most researchers would care to admit. That’s why it’s so important to debrief them fully afterwards. And yet, having said all this, an alarming new survey of researchers by Donald Sharpe and Cathy Faye suggests that debriefing is a neglected practice in contemporary psychology. Ironically for a science that’s supposed to be about people and behaviour, there’s also scant research on what kinds of debriefing are even effective – for example is it enough to tell participants they were given false feedback or should they have the chance to complete a real test?

Sharpe and Faye surveyed over two hundred researchers who’d published during a twelve month period from 2006 to 2007, either in the American Psychological Association’s flagship social psychology journal The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology or in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. Just one third of articles in the social psychology journal had mentioned debriefing and fewer than one in ten of the trauma journal articles had done so. Those mentionings that were found were usually cursory, such as ‘Participants in this and all following experiments were debriefed prior to dismissal.’ If the purpose of a particular study was obvious, the survey suggested most researchers considered debriefing to be unnecessary, with nearly all their focus placed instead on informed consent prior to the study.

Set against this worrying picture, Sharpe and Faye make a strong case for just how vital debriefing ought to be to good quality research. Taking their lead from a provocative article published on this topic thirty years ago by Frederick Tesch, the pair say that effective debriefing is vital not only for the ethical reasons outlined above, but for educational and methodological functions too.

Explaining to participants why and how a study was performed ought to be given far higher priority, they argue, especially when one considers how many studies are performed on psychology students. Even with non-psychology students, the exercise of carefully explaining the rationale, methodology, and perhaps even results, of a study, could help to promote the scientific cause. ‘Participants would learn about doing research, the joys and frustrations, and the excitement of discovery,’ Sharpe and Faye said.

Regarding the methodological benefits of debriefing, the authors said that the process ought to be two-way, and that information garnered from participants can illuminate study findings and help improve future procedures. ‘Researchers would learn about how participants view the experimental task, what makes sense and what does not, and what the participants think it was all about,’ Sharpe and Faye said.

Their paper ends with seven recommendations for how to improve the situation, including greater discussion of debriefing in the research literature; more thorough reporting of debriefing practices in journals’ methods sections; use of online overflow pages for discussing debriefing; and formalising the debriefing procedure. ‘Progress will be made when researchers recognise the importance of debriefing or when some unfortunate circumstance forces such recognition,’ the authors said.

ResearchBlogging.orgSharpe, D., & Faye, C. (2009). A Second Look at Debriefing Practices: Madness in Our Method? Ethics & Behavior, 19 (5), 432-447 DOI: 10.1080/10508420903035455

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

4 thoughts on “Psychology researchers aren’t paying enough attention to debriefing their participants”

  1. I couldn't find this paper via my institutional databases so please correct me if I get this wrong.

    The dependent variable was whether the article *mentioned* debriefing? And they infer from this that there *was* no debriefing? For myself, sometimes I haven't included the debriefing in the methods second because it's so obvious–everybody debriefs!–that it's not worth the space when word counts are tight.

    Do I have that right? It's a big assumption to assume that no debriefing occurred just because it wasn't mentioned in the procedure.

  2. “Deception in research is like marital infidelity: If you don't like it, don't do it; if you do it, don't tell.”

    – Paraphrased quote from Robyn Dawes, presenting a talk at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Society for Judgement and Decision Making. As I recall, his argument was that, in cases where deception was unlikely to be of import to the subject, you shouldn't reveal the deception because if you do, it sours the subject for future studies (where they'll be constantly be questioning the “true” intent of the research).

  3. Justin — thanks for the question. First we looked to see if debriefing was mentioned by authors of JPSP/JTS studies in their published papers. In many cases, debriefing was not mentioned. However, informed consent was mentioned frequently. Why is valuable publication space given to informed consent — everyone obtains informed consent — but not so for debriefing? Second we did an internet survey of the authors of those studies. Debriefing was more frequently conducted than the publication record would suggest, but it was far from universal. Don Sharpe

  4. Don,

    Thank you for the reply. That does indeed answer my question. I assume my questions would have been answered by the original paper–it was too bad my university doesn't have an electronic subscription.

    I do agree that debriefing is an important responsibility of researchers, especially when false feedback occurs (e.g., a process debriefing).

    To be honest, I accept your findings but it baffles me that people are out there not doing debriefings. There is no way we would get away with that at my institution. (Nor should we want to.)

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