Debriefing refers to the procedure for revealing the true purpose of a psychological study to a research participant at the conclusion of a research session.
In order to examine authentic behavior, it is sometimes necessary to tell participants that the study is about one subject, when in fact it is about something else. This is called deception.
If researchers explained the true purpose of a study, then some participants will act in a way that undermines the study’s validity. For example, participants may engage in impression management strategies to make themselves appear in a favorable light.
Thus, the need for deception.
Ethics of Debriefing
Elements of deception must be approved before researchers begin data collection.
This is accomplished through a university Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is responsible for overseeing all research involving human participants.
The researchers fill out extensive forms, thoroughly explain the rationale for deception and the debriefing protocol, and supply a copy of the Debriefing Form.
The American Psychological Association states that psychologists should explain:
“…the nature, results, and conclusions of the research … [and] take reasonable steps to correct any misconceptions that participants may have” (p. 1070).
If the IRB approves the study, data collection can commence. If the study is not approved, researchers may alter their procedures and resubmit.
The Debriefing Protocol and Form
Every debriefing includes a set procedure that must be approved by the IRB. There are many required components, plus a Debriefing Form, which may or may not have to be signed by each participant, depending on the university.
The standard components of the form include:
- Thanking the participant for their time and involvement.
- Recapping the tasks and stated purpose of the study.
- Clarification of the study’s use of deception and revealing its true purpose.
- Stating that the participant can withdraw their data, without penalty.
- A request asking the participant’s permission to use their data.
- Provide contact information for university counselling services.
- Provide contact information of the researcher.
- Explain that they may receive a full copy of the research paper when completed.
- Provide contact information for the university’s Institutional Review Board.
- Provide two references of similar research.
About The Institutional Review Board (IRB)
The IRB is an independent entity established to protect the rights of human research participants. Any organization in the United States that receives federal funding must have an IRB that is registered with the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and complies with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Protection of Human Subjects regulations, 45 CFR part 46.
The IRB is comprised of research peers at the university where the research will be conducted.
Researchers submit their application for approval to the IRB before commencing data collection.
The IRB has the authority to:
- Approve, disapprove, or terminate a study
- Require researchers modify procedures
- Require additional information be provided to participants on the Informed Consent Form (basic elements and sample)
Typically, the IRB will meet once a month to review applications and discuss relevant issues. Members will have already received copies of submitted applications prior to the meeting. If approved, official notification will be delivered to the principal investigator.
If there are any substantial changes in the research protocol, the IRB must be informed and an amended application may be required.
Infamous Studies Demonstrating the Need for Quality Debriefing
1. The Milgram Shock Study
In 1961, Dr. Stanley Milgram of Yale university conducted one of the most influential, and controversial, experiments in psychology.
Milgram’s studied deceived participants by telling them the study was about punishment and learning. The true purpose was to investigate the power of authority.
During the study, real participants were instructed to administer increasingly high levels of shock to another participant (actually an actor). As the actor began to object and expressed severe pain, the researcher insisted they continue administering shock.
Video recordings of the participants clearly showed they were under severe duress.
The study was heavily criticized for both the use of deception and psychological duress endured by participants.
According to Harris (1988), Milgram:
“…explained that he had arranged a ‘friendly reconciliation’ between each subject and the accomplice…convincingly explained the importance of research on obedience…used both an interview and follow-up questionnaire to verify subjects’ positive opinion of the research” (pp. 196-197).
Milgram’s study became a key impetus to the formalization of ethical standards in psychological research.
2. Bystander Intervention
In the 1960’s, there were no formalized procedures regarding the use of deception or debriefing. Researchers were entrusted to engage in ethical behavior in the name of professionalism.
The mindset regarding deception and debriefing is illustrated in the famous study by Darley and Latané (1968) on “the bystander effect.”
The study examined how the number of people witnessing a person in distress would influence their attempt to intervene.
Of course, if researchers explained this purpose at the beginning of the study, the results would hardly be valid.
Here is the deception:
“It was explained to him that he was to take part in a discussion about personal problems associated with college life and that the discussion would be held over the intercom system, rather than face-to-face, in order to avoid embarrassment by preserving the anonymity of the subjects” (p. 378).
At the end of each session, debriefing occurred:
“As soon as the subject reported the emergency, or after 6 minutes had elapsed, the experimental assistant disclosed the true nature of the experiment, and dealt with any emotions aroused in the subject” (p. 379).
Research on misinformation often requires deception. Debriefing usually involves a detailed explanation regarding the dangers of misinformation. Does that help? Do participants then become less susceptible to misinformation?
Greenspan and Loftus (2022) had participants watch a video that depicted a crime. Leading questions were used to suggest that the victim’s jacket was gray, even though it was red.
The leading questions had their usual effect. A majority of participants recalled the jacket as gray.
Then, two types of debriefings were administered.
In the control condition, participants were thanked and reminded about Session 2. In the misinformation condition, the role of misinformation in the study was revealed and participants were reminded about Session 2.
The results of Session 2 showed:
“…that a misinformation effect can persist after debriefing. Five days after debriefing, the majority of participants who endorsed the misinformation at Session 1 continued to do so postdebriefing” (p. 706).
So, even though debriefing informed participants about the leading questions in the study, the misinformation effect persisted.
- At the end of the experimental session, the experimenter thanked the participants for their time, clarified the use of deception and rationale, and distributed the Debriefing Forms.
- After being told the study was about memory and commercials, at the end of the study, participants were told that the study was actually about the effects of physically attractive actors on consumer attitudes.
- Since the participant seemed to be in a slightly depressed mood after receiving negative feedback in the low-self-esteem condition, the experimenter highlighted the contact information for the university’s counselling center on the Debriefing Form.
- Participants were initially told the study was about IQ tests. After the study, participants were told the study was really about the effects of different aromas on cognitive performance, which explains the presence of an essential oils diffuser in the room.
- At the end of the data-collection session, one participant indicated they did not want their data to be used. So, the experimenter immediately deleted their survey responses from the computer.
- After participants completed a job simulation, the experimenter collecting the data explained that the real purpose of the study was to examine the types of functional statements made during group decision-making.
- One participant did not appreciate being “lied to” during the study. The experimenter did their best to explain the rationale for deception and then highlighted the IRB’s contact information on the Debriefing Form.
- The experimenter explained to participants that the study was about mate selection. So, they would be rating photos of faces in terms of physical attractiveness. However, the study was actually designed to correlate facial markers of testosterone and perceived leadership ability.
- During debriefing, the experimenter answered all questions the participant had about the study and asked for permission to use their data.
- After collecting observational data during home visits, the researchers explained to parents that the study wasn’t actually about how children play. The study was really about types of parental discipline and children’s socio-emotional development.
Debriefing occurs at the end of each participant’s involvement in a study. There are numerous key components of the debriefing session, including clarifying any elements of deception and allowing participants to have their data deleted.
The purpose of debriefing is to ensure that participants are treated fairly, with dignity, and ensure they experience no enduring ill effects. The APA (2002) states that if researchers are “aware that research procedures have harmed a participant, they take reasonable steps to minimize the harm” (p. 1070).
There was a time in psychological research when debriefing was not required. However, historical events and the famous Milgram study sparked discussion and eventually a formal protocol was established.
Today, all studies must be pre-approved by an IRB before data is collected.
American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 57(12), 1060–1073. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.57.12.1060
Arslan, R. (2018). A Review on Ethical Issues and Rules in Psychological Assessment. Journal of Family, Counseling and Education, 3, 17-29. https://doi.org/10.32568/jfce.310629
Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4), 377-383.
Greenspan, R. L., & Loftus, E. F. (2022). What happens after debriefing? The effectiveness and benefits of postexperimental debriefing. Memory & Cognition, 50(4), 696-709.
Harris, B. (1988). Key words: A history of debriefing in social psychology. In J. Morawski (Ed.), The rise of experimentation in American psychology (pp. 188-212). New York: Oxford University Press.
Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18(1), 57–76.
The British Psychological Society. (2010). Code of Human Research Ethics. www.bps.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/code_of_human_research_ethics.pdf