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Debriefing Materials

What is debriefing?

Participants in research have the right to receive a fuller explanation both the purposes and results of research. This ordinarily occurs after participation and is generally termed debriefing.

A primary purpose of a debriefing is to insure that participants are at least as well-off after participation as before.  In some cases (e.g., research involving stress, manipulations of self esteem, strong emotional arousal), a debriefing session can 'restore' participants to a condition comparable to pre-experiment levels.  Generally this is accomplished by explaining the manipulations performed, and the rationale behind them.  It may even be appropriate to inform participants about educational and/or clinical resources relevant to the research topic.

When should debriefing occur?

You may choose to debrief participants immediately following data collection, arrange a later time for a group debriefing, or set up a date after which participants may contact you if they wish to find out more about the nature and results of research.  If your research involves manipulations of failure, humiliation, strong deception, or reductions of self esteem, you must provide at least a partial debriefing immediately after participation to insure that participants do not leave a study in a 'harmed' state (you will still need to make the results available at a later date).

What information should be in a debriefing?

At a minimum, you should inform participants about the purpose of the research, and the main results, and have some mechanism/opportunity for them to ask questions.  Debriefing should also, when appropriate, include the information necessary to 'restore' participants to a state at minimum no worse than before they participated in the study (see also paragraph 2 above).

Is debriefing always necessary?

In almost all cases researchers should make a debriefing opportunity available to participants.  There are some exceptions.  For example, the debriefing requirement may be waived if you are doing an observational (I.e., no experimental manipulations) study for which all of the following are true:

  • involves minimal risk
  • observes non-embarassing, non-humiliating, publicly observable behavior
  • observations are recorded in an anonymous manner
  • approaching the participants observed to offer a debriefing would be either impossible for the researchers, or hamper their ability to conduct the research, and/or pose greater stress for participants than no debriefing.