Debriefing Procedure Guidelines
Primarily for use in research that involves deceiving participants.Deception occurs when a researcher deliberately misleads or withholds information from participants.
A debriefing procedure ensures that:
A debriefing generally:
- participants are informed of all deceptive elements of a study
- participants understand the need for deception in some research
- participants leave with a positive regard for research participation
The following is an outline that can help you plan your debriefing procedure.
- probes for participants’ suspicions
- considerately explains how and why deception was employed
- makes clear the actual purpose of the study as well as the relationship between the procedures and the hypotheses being explored
Ask the participant if he or she has any questions. If not, establish whether his or her understanding of the research procedure was completely clear and whether he or she felt suspicious at any time.
- Ask the participant about his or her reactions to and feelings about the study.
- Ask if the participant felt that the procedure was odd, unsettling or confusing at any time.
(Though the ensuing discussion can be time consuming, it is important to evaluate whether the participant understood everything he or she was asked to do and whether interpreted the procedure in the way the researcher intended.)
- If the participant does not voice any suspicions, the researcher can probe further by asking something such as, “Could there have been more to this study than meets the eye?”
(This discussion gives the participant the opportunity to discuss any suspicions he or she has not yet shared. It also allows the participant to demonstrate that he or she is not gullible or naïve.)
The researcher should respond appropriately to the participant’s answers. The researcher can make statements such as, “You were on the right track. We couldn’t tell you about what we’re studying in advance, but I’d like to tell you more about what we’re studying now…” The researcher may find it helpful to mention to participants that often, when a participant knows the true purpose of an experiment, his or her answers can be affected in ways that can jeopardize the results of the study.
- Give the participant a brief summary of past research
- Describe the hypotheses and methods of the current study
- Ask if the participant has any questions about the experiment
(Note: the purpose of this discussion is to educate the participant about the thought and planning that goes into an experiment as well as to give the participant an opportunity to ask questions about how academic constructs are translated into research protocols.)
The researcher should address the role of deception in research.
- Acknowledge the irony of deceiving participants in order to approach “the truth
- Remind participants that deception is not meant to embarrass them and that it is only employed when absolutely necessary.
- Describe times when deception is necessary:
- When what people believe what they would do in a situation is not necessarily what they would really do
- When knowing what the researcher are studying can affect participants’ behavior
- They may help the researcher confirm the hypothesis
- They may assert independence and violate the hypothesis
- They may engage in artificial behavior to appear normal or good to the researcher
- State that deception is sometimes the only way to prevent these possible outcomes
- Clarify the specific deception employed in the experiment and specify that assurances of confidentiality and information regarding payment, etc. are true
- Explain that researchers plan experiments for a very long time before collecting data and the extent to which the participant believed the manipulation is only evidence of this careful planning and not the participant’s intelligence or gullibility
- Be open to the participant’s questions, comments or concerns about deception
- (This can be the most time consuming portion of the debriefing process. Participants must understand the role of deception in research in general and in this study in particular. It is especially important to assure participants that there is nothing wrong with them even if they believed the cover story. This portion of the debriefing allows participants to express objections or concerns they may have about the use of deception in research.)
Assess the participant's state of mind before he or she leaves:
- Does he or she have any further questions?
- Does he or she feel at least as okay as he or she did upon arrival? (if not, talk to the participant and, if necessary, refer them to Health Services for counseling)
- Ask the participant for suggestions for improving your study. Can he or she think of any ways of pursuing the same line of inquiry without using deception?
Ask the participant not to reveal any information about the study to others. Explain that if future participants knew about the purposes and procedures of the experiment, their responses would be affected, in turn affecting the validity of the study itself.
Find out if the current participant had heard anything about the study before participating. Ensure the participant that his or her credit will not be affected, even if his or her responses were influenced by information received in advance.
Thank the participant, provide contact information for the head researcher so that the participant may contact him or her with future questions or concerns. Consider providing a reference list should a participant wish to learn more and/or providing a mailing list in case participants would like to know about the results of the study.
(Adapted from the Hamilton College Human and Animal Research Site)
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