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Questions about dating violence can help subjects, study says
Personal benefits and negative reactions reported by men, women, victims and perpetrators
IRBs sometimes balk at studies that ask sensitive questions about topics such as sex and violence, based on concerns that participants may find them distressing.
This concern persists, despite several studies over the years that have shown that negative reactions to such questions are often balanced by positive benefits, such as providing participants with useful insights into their lives.
One of the latest studies to explore this issue looked at dating violence among college students. Men and women were asked about their experiences either as victims or perpetrators of psychological, physical and sexual abuse in their dating relationships. In addition, they were asked about their reactions to the questions.
The results showed that while some participants did have mildly negative emotional reactions to the questions, both victims and perpetrators of dating violence did perceive some personal benefits from their participation.
The questions about participants' reactions actually came at the suggestion of an IRB reviewing the proposed dating violence study, says Ryan Shorey, MA, a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. Shorey was the lead author of an article about the study that appeared recently in the online edition of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.1
"The IRB was having some concerns around emotional distress and wondered how we could go about assessing that," Shorey says. "It was their suggestion, which was great, since they wanted some scientific evidence around it."
Shorey says he hopes that IRBs will use evidence from studies such as this one to do more scientifically based cost-benefit analyses of studies that ask potentially sensitive questions.
"Although there were some mild negative reactions, overall, they weren't very high, and we really feel that the benefits did outweigh the risks," he says.
College students surveyed
Shorey's group used an existing measure, the Reactions to Research Participation Questionnaire, to gauge attitudes in the study. Participants are asked a number of questions about their reactions, including whether the survey raised unexpected emotional issues, whether they found the questions too personal, and whether they were glad that they had been asked to participate.
The survey, including the reaction questions, was administered to 260 college students who were recruited from introductory psychology classes. They filled out the written surveys in a classroom with a research assistant present to answer questions if necessary.
Results did show negative reactions from some participants. In general, male victims of psychological and physical abuse and male perpetrators of physical abuse had more negative reactions than non-victims and non-perpetrators, particularly in cases of high-frequency abuse. But nearly all of the same groups also reported more positive personal benefits to participation than those not involved in dating violence.
Similarly, female victims and perpetrators of abuse saw greater benefits to participating than non-victims and non-perpetrators.
Shorey says the benefits of participating in the study seemed to be greater for men than for women.
"When we think about it, we know women disclose this information more, to people such as friends and family," he says. "It might be the fact that (the study) was an opportunity for the men to get some of this out there and tell somebody about it in a way that wasn't one-on-one verbally communicated."
Including possible benefits in consent
Shorey says IRBs should allow informed consent documents in studies such as this one to include information about potential benefits to participants.
"We've had issues with some IRBs not believing this information, when we tell the students that they might gain some insights into themselves, their behaviors and their relationships," Shorey says. "But on the positive side of the study, that's what it showed they get some positives out of it, even with these sensitive questions."
At the same time, Shorey says the risks of negative reactions to the questions also should be made clear in the informed consent, Shorey says.
"It's important that informed consent have at least a statement that some questions are going to be sensitive and fairly personal, and it may be upsetting to recall some of that information," he says. "You should let them know that they can discontinue if they want to or that there are resources they can contact if they need it when they are done participating."
In this study, Shorey says, students were given contact information for campus counseling services and a research staffer was available in the room if students needed someone to talk to immediately.1
Researchers may have to go further in situations where participants don't have easy access to help, Shorey says. For example, it might be preferable to have a PhD or a graduate research assistant monitoring the survey.
"In our research with, say, battered women, we have to have very different resources available to them afterward shelters, community mental health centers," he says. "I think in those situations, where there isn't something readily available and free, it would be beneficial to have somebody there who is more trained than an undergraduate research assistant."
Shorey says it's important for IRBs to understand that a participant can be distressed by questions while still gaining positive benefits from answering them.
"This is the first study that looks at this with dating violence, but if you look at research with more traumatized populations such as battered women, you see that a lot," he says. "That it can be upsetting to talk about, but it's one of the first steps you go through in the healing process.
"Knowing that both can happen would certainly be beneficial," Shorey says. "Some of the concern with IRBs is that they don't potentially see the benefit, other than to science. They don't see that the research participant could benefit, too."