Study evaluates use of 'debriefing' statements

Subjects felt positive about studies

A new study looks at an intriguing strategy for improving study subjects' understanding and knowledge of clinical research. After subjects finished participating in the study, they were given a "debriefing" statement that explained more fully what the study was about and how it would contribute to scientific knowledge.

The study found that debriefed participants were more likely to say they had learned something about the subject and that they felt positive about the educational value of research participation.1

"We have a psychology student participant pool," says Darcy A. Reich, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. "For part of their credit in class, they engage in some research project the department is doing."

The goal was to help psychology students understand the value of research, feel they had contributed to science in a meaningful way, and to empathize with what research subjects experienced. "We're hoping to get them interested in the field so they may go on to be researchers," Reich says. "After everything is finished, the researcher tells participants about what the purpose of the study is, the nature of the findings, and it gives participants a sense of how they might have contributed to the field," Reich says.

There were seven experiments with 475 university students, she adds. "We debriefed participants and asked them questions," Reich says.

They found student participants generally were very positive about research, with 98% agreeing that they had contributed to science and 96% agreeing with a statement about how research was for a good cause, Reich says.

The debriefing statements thank subjects for their participation in the study and then discuss more fully what the study was about. They also discuss what researchers hope the findings will show and when results will be made available.

An example of a debriefing statement is as follows: "Thank you for your participation in this research on the effect of proximity and interview techniques on eyewitness memory. Two types of questions were used in this experiment. One was the cognitive interview, and the other was a control interview similar to police questions. The cognitive interview uses four retrieval techniques to bring out the memory of an event. These techniques allow a person to express how they felt at the time of the event, recall the event in different orders, mentally change their perspective about the event, and finally report all information they remember, even if it seems unimportant. It was hypothesized that when testing eyewitness memory, the cognitive interview would elicit more accurate responses when compared to the control interview. It was also hypothesized that even if the participant was farther away from the event, they would still report more accurate information with the cognitive interview.

"It was required for the experimenter to deceive you about the event — that is, the person did not actually win a prize — because it more closely approximates an event in which an eyewitness would be necessary. Eyewitnesses often do not know they are hearing and seeing events that others will want them to remember. When we are trying to remember something, we often act differently.

"Your participation was important in helping researchers learn whether the cognitive interview is better for obtaining more accurate information in eyewitness situations. The findings in this study should help to improve the accuracy of eyewitness interview situations. Improved eyewitness interviewing techniques may aid in solving future crimes in which an eyewitness is present. Also, by participating in this study, you have firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be in a psychology experiment.

"Final results will be posted on the bulletin board outside of Stewart Hall 213 by the week of Dec. 11. All results are grouped together; therefore, individual results are not available. Your participation will remain confidential."

The debriefing statement concludes with contact information for any additional questions and with a brief list of references.

"We think the debriefing is very important," Reich says. "I'm with the IRB at Texas Tech, and we look at the outcomes from cancer treatments and how people respond, and debriefing is really important there too."

The debriefings for cancer trials help participants realize their contribution is appreciated and the debriefings give them more information about the disease process being studied, she adds.

"For a follow-up study, it would be a great idea to talk with participants about what was most useful in the debriefing," Reich says.


  1. Abbott CM, Reich DA, Cogan R, et al. Research participation as an educational experience: does debriefing matter? Poster presented at the 2011 PRIM&R Advancing Ethical Research Conference. Dec. 2-4, 2011. National Harbor, MD.