After the data are collected, the investigator provides the participant with information about the nature of the study and attempts to remove any misconceptions that may have arisen. Where scientific or humane values justify delaying or withholding this information, the investigator incurs a special responsibility to monitor the research and to ensure that there are no damaging consequences for the participant. (APA, 1982, p. 6)
Debriefing has been defined as "the process of informing subjects after the session of the experiment's true purpose in order to increase their understanding and to remove possible harmful effects of deception" (McBurney, 1998, p. 326). During debriefing, the investigator should be open to answering any questions asked by participants about the research in order to enhance their comprehension and appreciation of it. If concealment or deception was employed, then the investigator is obligated at the time of debriefing to reveal the hidden information or correct any misinformation that was provided during the experiment. In these cases, "the investigator must make a strong effort to assure the participant that the postinvestigation clarification is complete and accurate" (APA, 1982, p. 65). This would include providing a rationale for why concealment or deception was necessary during the investigation and why it is no longer required. It also helps that the investigator express regret for having deceived the participant (Kimmel, 1996).
Kiess (cited in Kimmel, 1996, p.89) provides a list of lead-in sentences that make for a thorough debriefing protocol:
- "The purpose of my experiment is to..."
- "The reasons why I misled you or withheld certain information about my study prior to your participation are..."
- "The treatment conditions are..."
- "I expect to find..."
- "Do you have any questions about the experiment?"
- "For future contacts, I can be reached by..."
- "Thank you for participating."
Debriefing should occur as soon as possible after the data are collected from the participant, especially if there is the potential for negative consequences stemming from involvement in the study. For example, should debriefing occur two weeks after a person served as a participant and should that experiment have entailed the person inflicting pain upon another (fictional) participant, then that person may have needlessly suffered two weeks of guilt for his or her actions. For this same reason, multiple session studies that employ deception are discouraged, and alternative single-session experimental designs should be explored.
There are circumstances, however, which weight in favor of delaying debriefing. For example, suppose there had been no deception and that the subject pool contains a small number of persons who all know each other. A participant debriefed at the end of a session may pass on relevant information about the experiment to future participants, a phenomenon known as "leakage:" (Kimmel, 1996, p.99). This is problematic for the investigator because the effects of the independent variable may be a function of level of awareness about the experiment, a variable over which he or she would have little control. Here, the investigator might choose to wait until the data have been collected from all participants before debriefing them. If so, participants should be made aware of this during the consent procedure.
Debriefing is an ideal time for assessing whether the research had a negative impact on the participant and, if so, for taking steps to remedy the situation (see Principle I).
The Generalization Probe is conducted while the children are silently working on their homework. The new student teacher removes a child from class under the pretense of participating in sports. After the arranged encounter with the stranger on the playground, the child is returned to class by the student teacher, who says very little. Then, the same procedure is followed for the next child, and so on, until all the children are tested. It takes about one hour to complete the Generalization Probe for each class. Soon afterwards, all the participants gather in one room, and the student teacher and the "stranger" come in to explain what had happened and why it had been necessary to keep it a secret up until now. The children are encouraged to ask questions to ensure that by the end of the session they all understand that the "stranger" was part of a make-believe situation to test what they would do when promised treats by an adult. A few children appeared visibly shaken after returning to class from their encounter in the schoolyard, and they remained so throughout the morning until they learned the truth during the debriefing session. One of these children became increasingly anxious, reported feeling ill, and went home with her parents before being debriefed.
The Generalization Probe is conducted while the children are silently working on their homework. The new student teacher removes a child from class under the pretense of participating in sports. Immediately after the arranged encounter with the stranger in the schoolyard, the vice-principal appears, and she and the student teacher sit on a bench with the child and explain what had happened and why it had been necessary to keep it a secret up until now. The vice-principal is known and trusted by all the children. The "stranger" then joins them and also talks to the child, providing further reassurance. The child is encouraged to ask questions to ensure that before returning to class he or she understands that the "stranger" was part of a make-believe situation to test what he or she would do when promised treats by an adult. Then, the same procedure is followed for the next child, until all the children are tested. It takes about two hours to complete the Generalization Probe for each class. A few children were visibly shaken immediately following their encounter with the "stranger," but they felt much better after talking to the vice-principal and the two graduate students.
In the first item, debriefing is delayed, which has at least two advantages. First, it is more efficient, cutting down on the time needed to complete the Generalization Probe. Second, given that it takes less time, there is less opportunity for the children to talk among themselves in class about their encounter with the stranger before all of them had been tested. A child who knows from his friends what is about to happen may be less likely to take seriously being enticed by the "stranger" in the schoolyard. Despite these advantages, it could be argued that the delay causes unnecessary anxiety throughout the morning for a few of the children. Recall the one maxim stands above all others: in weighing the pros and cons of conducting the research, "priority must be given to the research participants' welfare" (APA, 1982, p. 18). Immediate debriefing should have been employed because it minimizes the possibility that any child had to needlessly suffer for several hours before being learning the truth.
In the second item, debriefing is immediate. A drawback is that it doubled the time to complete the Generalization Probe, doubling the time for the children to talk among themselves in class during the testing procedure. And, in this case, children returning to class are actually aware that the "stranger" is a fake. With this immediate debriefing procedure, extra ingenuity in planning the study would be required to keep the children from discussing in class what happened and what they know. While it may be possible to keep them silently engaged in homework for one hour (delayed debriefing), it may not be possible to get them to do so for two hours (immediate debriefing). Other engaging in-class "silent" activities would need to be arranged to occupy the children until testing is complete. Special arrangements would also be needed to restrict contact between children in different classes while testing is in progress.
Another drawback of the debriefing procedure in the second item is that it required more resources (i.e., the vice-principal). Overall, extra time, ingenuity, and resources are the costs Sally pays for acting in the best interests of the children.
Another advantage of the debriefing procedure in the second item is that it was individualized. In this situation, children may be more likely to express their concerns about what happened to them than in the group debriefing session described in the first item. The added presence of the trusted vice-principal may enhance this effect. Peer reactions in the group session may alter what the children say (e.g., to appear brave) and may intimidate some of them into saying nothing at all.