When social psychologists manipulate a participant’s attitudes or beliefs, we have an ethical obligation to undo that manipulation. I explain it to my students as “putting the participant back the way we found them.” We frequently use a debriefing procedure, in the form of a written and/or (as in the case of my lab) verbal notice something to the effect of “yuk yuk, gosh, ya know what? we were just kidding. the thing you (read/did) was fake, we made it up, and it doesn’t mean anything.” Here is an example from the verbal debriefing script I used in a study several years ago that presented participants with a fake newspaper article about vandalism by University of Texas students.
I want to thank you for your participation here today and for your contribution to this project. We really appreciate your help with this work. Let me tell you a little bit about what we are trying to study.
First, we want to assure you that the incident you read about never happened on the campus. We created a fake newspaper article about it in order to better understand how people respond to these kinds of situations. To our knowledge, no University of Texas students have ever been involved in such an incident.
A new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (i.e., Miketta & Friese, 2019) casts doubt on the effectiveness of such debriefings, especially when they are done to undo the effects of ego manipulations—manipulations designed to change someone’s self-perception. These manipulations are usually referred to as false feedback, where participants engage in some task ostensibly to measure some personally-relevant property such as intelligence, ability, personality, etc. The false feedback is meant to manipulate the participants’ self-relevant thoughts.
“Several debriefing procedures failed to fully undo the aversive effects of ego-threatening experiences on participants’ well-being. Only an extensive process debriefing largely reestablished prestudy conditions. However, even then, negative affective after-effects persisted for at least 2 weeks. Restoring participants’ well-being after ego-threatening experiences appears to be more difficult than previously believed. The positive antidote needs to be strong. It remains for future research to continue identifying the necessary ingredients of such antidotes.” (Miketta & Friese, 2019, p. 25)
The authors of the article point out that prior research (i.e., Ross et al., 1975 & McFarland et al., 2007) has demonstrated that simple written or verbal debriefings like this (what the authors refer to as Standard Outcome Debriefings) are largely ineffective at undoing false feedback results. This prior research showed that the only effective means was via a Revised Outcome Debriefing, which told participants that they got false feedback and, crucially, that the measure that was used was invalid and did not measure any underlying personal characteristics at all. This presumably kept participants from ruminating about the results.
This new article presents the results of six studies that looked at the effectiveness of debriefing methods specifically in the context of ego threat manipulations. They found in the first three studies that a written Revised Outcome Debriefing did not eliminate the adverse effects of the ego threat manipulation on self-esteem, self-perception, or mood. The detrimental effects persevered for at least several hours after leaving the experiment. The last three studies tested various supplements or changes in the debriefing, including verbal debriefing, and written debriefing with self-affirmation, and an elaborate 10-15 minute “sensitive, caring, emotionally warm, attentive, and considerate manner” (Miketta & Friese, 2019, p. 18). This elaborate debriefing required experimenters to be trained by a psychologist over the course of several weeks. a second elaborate debriefing was tested that added an explanation of the psychological basis of the perseverance of the mood manipulation effects and instructions to counteract that perseverance effect.
The only debriefing that fully eliminated the detriment to self-esteem and self-perception was the second elaborate one. None of the debriefings fully attenuated the effects of ego threat on mood.
Importantly, an internal meta-analysis of all six studies taken together showed none of the debriefings fully eliminated the effects of the ego threat.
From the standpoint of ethical treatment of our participants, we are always balancing risk and benefits. If the (potential or actual) benefits of the research to the participants and humanity at large are sufficiently large, we may be willing to accept more risks; if they are lesser, then we will accept less risk. In the context of these findings, the authors point out that there may be little to no risk of the detrimental effects of the ego threat manipulation. That may be true at least for psychologically well individuals, and even for these individuals, it is not clear what harm they may suffer from the ego threat manipulation aside from what is indicated by these measures of self-esteem and self-perception and mood. Further, what level of detrimental effects would cause a clinically significant effect in individuals?
In addition, these detrimental effects may have other, unknown or unrecognized downstream effects. Perhaps the self-perception or self-esteem reduction might cause an individual to underperform in a job interview and lose a career opportunity. The participant might not recognize this outcome as resulting from the ego threat manipulation, and so would not report it as an adverse effect to the experimenter or the IRB.
So, what we know is that our written, and even verbal, debriefing procedures may reduce but not fully eliminate the effects of our manipulations, at least in the case of ego threat. But we do not know how much of an adverse effect the failure to eliminate the effect might have on participants, and so can’t say definitively that they do or don’t experience risk from the manipulation that is minimal: “not greater in and of themselves than those ordinarily encountered in daily life,” as defined in the federal regulations 45 CFR 46.102(j). It would seem to be very individual and contextual. As usual, more research is necessary to better understand the potential persistence of manipulation effects despite debriefings.
IRB committees can consider this study a cautionary tale, but I think there is not yet enough evidence that debriefings don’t work to undo the effects of a psychological manipulation. I think we can be a little more comfortable with more elaborate verbal debriefings, that include explanations of how effects of the experiment might persist and information about how to counteract such persistence, than we might be with simple written debriefings. But even that conclusion is not fully supported by evidence. We still need to make a subjective judgment call on these situations.
McFarland, C., Cheam, A., & Buehler, R. (2007). The perseverance effect in the debriefing paradigm: Replication and extension. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 233–240. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2006.01.010
Miketta, S., & Friese, M. (2019). Debriefed but still troubled? About the (in)effectiveness of postexperimental debriefings after ego threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.
Ross, L., Lepper, M. R., & Hubbard, M. (1975). Perseverance in self-perception and social perception: Biased attributional processes in the debriefing paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 880–892. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060