Psychology and More

Professings from the lectern of this social psychologist


Debriefing for ego threat may require more than we thought

Sad, from Flickr user Megadeth’s Girl, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.

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.



Top 10 Trends in Psychology for 2019

As much as I despise “Top 10” lists, this is a decent summary from the American Psychological Association of important issues psychology can come to bear on.


New Preprint on OSF

My collaborators and I have completed a new manuscript that is close to in-press for the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research. It is a meta-analysis of several replication attempts of a highly-cited study about how self-esteem is related to Facebook usage motivations and perceptions. We found that the replications clearly replicated two of the four findings of the original article, failed to replicate one of them, and there was mixed evidence for the other finding. This tells us a bit more about how robust the original study’s findings were, and helps people who are interested to begin looking for moderators that we did not study.

The process was great because I had four great co-authors and we all worked together to get it done and out the door. I learned how to do meta-analysis in the process! We earned journal badges for Open Data, Open Materials, Preregistration, and Replication.

The prepress manuscript is on PsyArXiv at

Leighton, D. C., Legate, N., LePine, S., Anderson, S. F., & Grahe, J. E. (2019, January 1). Self-Esteem, Self-Disclosure, Self-Expression, and Connection on Facebook: A Collaborative Replication Meta-Analysis. Retrieved from

The original article by Forest & Wood (2012)  is at Psychological Science:



Scientific Reform and (Un)intended Victims

There is a captivating piece in the NY Times this week titled When The Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy about Amy Cuddy’s research agenda, and how a “star” of social psychology came crashing down. Amy’s research was shown to be partly a product of a practice known as “p-hacking” whereby researchers make choices between data collection and publication that increase the chances of a false-positive result (so-called Type-I error).

At conferences, in classrooms and on social media, fellow academics (or commenters on their sites) have savaged not just Cuddy’s work but also her career, her income, her ambition, even her intelligence, sometimes with evident malice. Last spring, she quietly left her tenure-track job at Harvard.

Photo illustration by Alec Soth, New York Times

Just to be clear. Prior to 2012, many (most?) of us were doing psychological science using some of the questionable practices Amy used without thinking twice about it. The difference was primarily that Amy’s study captured the public imagination and spread beyond academia, and she was always part of the Ivy League, and so I think the field was harsher on her than we would have been on a relatively unknown study from a researcher at a tier 2 state university. It was mostly undeserved, especially the harsh dialogue.

I would be tempted to blame the typical boogie-man in these situations, social media, but if you look at some of the published discourse in scientific fields over the last 200 years, I see some of the same harsh dialogue. Maybe the difference is the ease and speed with which this dialog takes place. In the past, you’d have to publish a critique in an academic journal, which would take months or years. Now, it take a few seconds to ravage a person and their career.


How Kids Learn Prejudice

In class this week, we were discussing observational learning (AKA social learning) and then moved into cognition and the formation of stereotypes. Children are constantly observing the behavior of adult models in their environment and learning behaviors from them.

The NY Times has a good article written by a social psychologist on the ways children learn social attitudes and prejudice. She argues (well, I think) that the candidacy (and potential presidency) of Donald Trump may have some deleterious effects on children’s social attitudes and behaviors.

Also at stake are the attitudes Mr. Trump’s discourse would transmit to a generation of children.

Source: How Kids Learn Prejudice


We’re All a Little Biased, Even if We Don’t Know It

The NY Times has a good article that addresses a recent event in the Vice Presidential Debate. When Tim Kaine raised the issue of implicit bias in institutional racism, Mike Pence took serious offense to it as a condemnation of law enforcement officers.

Many people hear “implicit bias” as academic jargon for “racist.” But the reality is more complicated.

The issue of implicit bias is that all of us, law enforcement and non-law enforcement, white and black, absorb notions of racial power structures from the dominant culture and, without awareness, our behavior is affected by it.

To broach implicit bias isn’t to impugn someone’s values; it’s to recognize that our values compete on an unconscious level with all the stereotypes we absorb from the world around us. And even black police officers aren’t immune to internalizing them.

That’s why it’s implicit (non conscious) and not explicit (consciously aware) bias. The concept has been soundly demonstrated in psychological research.

 implicit bias is just one of many psychological processes that shape how we interact with one another. We also tend to be better at remembering the faces of people in our own racial group, or to subconsciously favor people in our group.

This is one reason that when I grade written assignments, I always do it anonymously. I cannot trust that I do not have implicit biases on the basis of age, gender, race, etc. If I might (non-consciously) believe that a particular group might perform worse on an assignment, I need to guard against letting that influence affect the grade I assign a student. That is the benefit of learning about implicit bias: knowing that we are subject to influences outside our awareness and making every effort to guard against them.

Source: We’re All a Little Biased, Even if We Don’t Know It


Inside Venezuela’s Crumbling Mental Hospitals

The state-run El Pampero Hospital in Venezuela has almost no drugs left for its tormented patients, let alone food and clothing, amid the nation’s economic crisis.

The New York Times has an excellent photo spread illustrating the horrific conditions in Venezuela’s mental “health” system.

In the beginning of the semester, we talked about the horrible conditions in asylums from the middle ages until the advent of the moral therapy movement. Things were still pretty bad until the development of psychotropic drugs that could treat the symptoms of mental illness.

Because Venezuela’s national economy is in the dumps, medication is not purchased for the hospital and the patients are floridly symptomatic. It is truly a nightmare, and a good reminder of how far we have come in treating mental illness.

The worst part is:

The Venezuelan government denies that its public hospitals are suffering from shortages, and has refused multiple offers of international medical aid.

Source: Inside Venezuela’s Crumbling Mental Hospitals


Hillary Clinton’s ‘Angry’ Face – The New York Times

The NY Times has an interesting article applying social psychology to the present election, the first between a woman and man as President of the Unites States of America.

It illustrates the strength of a bias we have to attribute emotional causes to women’s actions, but more situational causes to men’s. It is sort of a “gendered fundamental attribution error.”

The author’s research has shown this basic effect, and it may be at work when we perceive Hillary Clinton being serious as more “angry” but Donald Trump as more “forceful.” It also may be part of people’s attributions of her as more untrustworthy.

This is a classic example of a psychological phenomenon that my lab has studied: how people perceive emotion differently in men’s and women’s faces. It’s something for Americans to consider as they watch the first debate between Mrs. Clinton and Donald J. Trump on Monday.

Source: Hillary Clinton’s ‘Angry’ Face – The New York Times


Using behavioral science research to improve public policy

What use is psychology research? The Social and Behavioral Sciences Team has just released their second report. This is the result of the President’s executive order to direct federal agencies to use behavioral and social science research to improve operations.

Here are a few results:

SBST pilots led to a 53 percent increase in workplace savings plan enrollment rates by military service members and resulted in more than 4,800 new enrollments and over $1 million dollars in additional savings in just one month; a 63 percent increase in the rate at which small family farmers obtained small-business loans; and a doubling in the rate at which student loan borrowers in default contacted default-resolution representatives.

Link to the report page: 2016 Annual Report | Social and Behavioral Sciences Team


Depression Is Poorly Diagnosed and Often Goes Untreated – The New York Times

One of the topics discussed in our Abnormal Psychology class is the merits of general physicians (as opposed to psychiatrists) prescribing psychoactive drugs for psychological disorders.

The NY Times has a good summary of results from a national survey that confirms the prevalence of depression in the general population, but also the low rates of treatment. Conversely, general physicians are treating individuals for depression with antidepressant drugs without administering the simplest of screening measures.

This calls for greater education of physicians about the inpirtance of using the screening before going straight to medication. On the other hand, physicians have incentives to use medication immediately: potential malpractice if the patient does have the disorder and the physician did not treat it, and simply the negative social (and business) implications of refusing to treat a person who insists. It is a complicated issue.

About 8.4 percent of the people interviewed had depression. But of those, only 28.7 percent had received any treatment. At the same time, of those who were treated for depression, only 29.9 percent had screened positive for the disorder. Many people with less serious psychological problems were being treated with antidepressants and other psychiatric medicines.

Source: Depression Is Poorly Diagnosed and Often Goes Untreated – The New York Times

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