Human subjects debriefing

When a person agrees to participate in a research project you have designed, they are placing their lives in your hands for the duration of their participation. The informed consent form is a contract, which says that the participant agrees to "give data" to you, and in return, you guarantee that the participant will leave your "Laboratory" as the same person he/she was when he/she entered. Specifically, the researcher has the ethical responsibility to preserve the participant's:

  1. physical safety;
  2. privacy: "the right to decide for oneself how much we will share with others our thoughts, feelings, and personal facts: (Sasson & Nelson, 1971, p. 268);
  3. self-concept: the knowledge of one's physical and psychological traits;
  4. comfort: "being at ease physically, mentally and socially and feeling no pain or urgent,
  5. "unsatisfied wants" (Sasson & Nelson, 1971, pp. 277-278); and
  6. dignity: the worth, respect, and decency deserving of every human being.

To the extent that any of these is compromised, either intentionally (e.g., through a deceptive experimental "cover story") or accidentally (e.g., viewing a disturbing or offensive video clip), you must DEBRIEF each participant. Debriefing occurs immediately after a participant has finished "giving data," and it should do the following:

  1. state all of the purposes and hypotheses of your project;
  2. reveal any deceptions, explain the purpose of such deceptions and relieve any embarrassment for having "fallen for it" (e.g., after a study of effects of anxiety on cognitive performance, tell the participant that "the puzzles were designed to be insoluble for everyone");
  3. remedy any incorrect factual information that might have been given during the experiment (e.g., after a questionnaire assessing one's knowledge about AIDS, give the participant the correct information about it);
  4. provide names and phone numbers of professionals who could help the participant discuss sensitive issues brought out during the project (e.g., after a survey of sexual and contraceptive behavior, tell the participant that he/she may "call Dr. Smith, 555.1234, at the campus health clinic, to receive more information about effective birth control methods); and
  5. offer a specific period of time (e.g., one month from the date of participation) during which participants may contact you, to ask questions about the project and to obtain a summary of the results.

This can be done either orally or in writing, but giving participants a written debriefing insures that they will get the information you are obligated to give them. Obviously, your specific study might not require all five of the above elements; when in doubt, ask the chair of the Human Subjects Committee (Dr. Bozak,, or discuss it with your instructor or faculty sponsor.

Please remember that our research participants — or "human subjects" — have feelings, opinions and rights, none of which is forfeited simply as a consequence of their participation.


  • American Psychological Association (1981). Ethical principles of psychologist. American Psychologist, 36 (6), 633-638.
  • Ray, W. J. & Ravizza, R. (1988). Methods toward a science of behavior and experience. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Sasson, R. & Nelson, T. M. (1971). The human experimental subject in context. In J. Jung (Ed.), The experimenter's dilemma. New York: Harper & Row.