With all experiments it is important that the participant/participants have been informed about all aspects of the research study which is to be carried out. This is why debriefing participants is an essential component of an experiment, one which should not be taken lightly. Ethical obligations have stated that a full explanation of how the results are going to be used, the anonymity of the experiment and the purpose of the research and of course the right to withdraw  is required to each individual participant (, 2005).

Without a system such as debriefing then the experiment will be violating the ethical guidelines associated with the respect which should be provided to each individual participant provided by the British Psychological Society. The BPS states that the knowledge, insight, experience and expertise of the participants should be respected and that no experiment should be unfair to the public. ( Therefore, the debriefing system serves as an important and valid measure to protect potential participants from unfair practice.

Debriefing has been shown to be an effective source for the relief of stress in Psychology which may occur during or even before the beginning of a Psychological experiment. With reference to the effectiveness of debriefing, it has been shown that debriefing was just as effective in the 1900’s when it acted as an intervention into the prevention of event related distress which was shown by the soldiers who participated in world war one who were forced into combat which may have led them to produce certain behaviours which may have contributed to stressful emotions being portrayed. (

In conclusion we all are quite aware by now that if a research study is not valid or reliable then it cannot be published in any shape or form. The debriefing procedure allows the experimenters to get rid of many confounding variables which include the possibility of misleading participants who are partaking within the experiments and certain emotions which may become elated which may be stress related due to the demands of the experiment. At the end of the day the experimenter wants the research to be generalisable towards the general public. Therefore, if the research was violated due to a lack of respect on behalf of the participants (the lack of a debriefing system) then the results will not be viable nor will they correlate with previous research in the area which is being studied.



17 thoughts on “Debriefing

  1. I agree with the importance of debriefing and how in some instances, such as the real life example of the soldiers, it can be effective. However in experiments it is not the effectiveness of the debrief that should be the main concern. For experiments that could potentially cause the participant harm, you should be considering whether the end justifies the means. In other words does the purpose of your research validate distressing, in any shape or form, your participant. The electric shock experiment by Milgram (1963), is arguably the first experiment that comes to mind when posed with this question. Like you stated, the researcher aims to generalize findings to the wider population. However in contrary to your post, if he harms his participants along the way it does not mean his findings will be invalid and lack the ability to be generalized. His data will still be testing what he wanted it to be testing. In Milgram’s case, causing his participants distress did not interfere with his aim of showing how everyone can perform horrific acts.The debrief does not eliminate confounding variables within the study, because the debrief occurs after the experiment has taken place. It does however try to reduce any distress or lasting effects that the experiment could have caused.

    Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378. Doi: 10.1037/h0040525.

    • Funny you should mention Milgram on this blog, I was just about to talk about his well-known obedience study as well to point out that, despite the number of psychologists who feel the need to judge it on its ethics, he was one of the first to use the debriefing procedure, using it at a time when few others bothered. In fact when Ring, Wallston & Corey (1970)* replicated this experiment to test it’s ethical rigidity and found that most participants actually feel they benefitted from taking part in the research rather than being harmed by it.


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  3. I also agree with the importance of debriefing in experiments. Many of the most unethical studies like Milgram, have shown the importance of debriefing to remove psychological harm and ensure all participants are at peace when going home. It even helped in his defence as during debriefing it was found that “84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were “glad” or “very glad” to have participated, 15 percent chose neutral responses (92% of all former participants responding). Many later wrote expressing thanks”.

    However you didn’t look into areas where debriefing is not possible. For example field studies. Pilliavin’s New York subway study into bystander effect could not have possibly debriefed the ALL the participants. This could have left many distressed throughout the day and worrying about the confederate’s health. However there is no arguing that this study was influential to understanding social effects on people’s behaviour.

    In conclusion yes whenever it is possible to debrief, it is essential and respectful for participants to be given this in order to ensure no stress and understanding of what they have taken part in. However it is not always possible to debrief, in which case the pros and cons of the study and not debriefing the participants need to be looked at.

  4. Agreeing with the above comments, debriefing is an essential part of the experimental process and ethical guidelines. Being debriefed after a study leaves participants feeling as if they know exactly what has happened and what will be happening with their results. However, it can often be said that the debriefing process is often skipped over, or not taken as seriously as it should be. For example in Hoffling’s study into obedience with nurses receiving a phone call and being asked to administer dangerous levels of drugs to ill patients, it was reported after the study that the nurses were not debriefed properly and afterwards felt that they were not capable of carrying out the duties required in their jobs anymore without feeling as if they were doing something wrong. However, as Leyla pointed out, in some experiments, debriefing is not possible, in a covert study, where participants are not aware they have taken part in a study, say for example if it was conducted in a shopping mall and the amount of people walking into a specified shop was being monitored then it is not possible to debrief these people, however, in these studies it is unlikely that any harm would have come to them.
    In conclusion, it is essential that participants are debriefed after a study as this failing to happen may result in anxiety issues in participants, it is also essential that the debriefing process is taken seriously and not skimmed over as a means to end the study quickly. However, where this is not possible, it needs to be assured that the people involved in the study are in no way left feeling psychologically damaged.

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  6. Debriefing is a very important and essential part of the ethics of an experiment as participants have a right to be told what will happen to their data, the purpose of the experiment, etc. Debriefing is particularly important when participants may have been misled about the true purpose of the study prior to taking part and this is increasingly a problem so not to influence the results of the experiment. I do feel that many researchers often ruch the debriefing and do not appreciate the importance of this and how participants may be affected from taking part in the study. However, as has been said, there are often circumstances such as in observations when it may be more difficult. In these circumstances I think every effort should be made to still debrief people, as the evidence you have included in your blog show that it may be even more important that we ever actually considered it to be.

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  8. Debreifing is essential as a part of psychology , as it is the only method that succesfully can return participants to ttheit natural state witthout debriefing potential harmful studies such as the electric shock study wouldnt have been able to be constructed as the impact on the participants would have been too destructive to handle.

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  10. Firstly when it comes to debriefing we can never use it as an excuse to justify any unethical parts of your experiment. So you can not make your experiment potentially physically or mentally harmful for participants on the grounds that the debrief will explain why and justify your actions. I think that many studies may have done this though like Milgram’s obedience (yes i had to mentioned him) because he explained to ps what the studies aim was during the debrief doesn’t mean they were any less mentally or physically harmed.
    Yes debriefing is essential because there is a level of deception when you are testing your participant. But of course there has to be if they were aware of the aim of your experiment your research would be pointless. But debriefing allows the participant to ask for support if they were affected by participating in your research and this is essential. I can’t remember who said this but anyway someone once said that ‘participants should always leave a study in the same physical and mental state they came in with’.

    Great post 🙂

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  13. Obviously I’m not going to say that debriefing is anything other than completely necessary I would have to disagree with some of the benefits you have attributed to it.

    I don’t think that debriefing allows the researcher to remove confounding variables from their data as, by the time the participant has been debriefed they have already completed the study and their data will have been collected by the researcher. If participants realised during the debriefing stage that they had misunderstood the experiment and had responded incorrectly then, assuming they confess this to the researcher, their data would then be removed from the data as an outlier but I do not believe this is a significant benefit to the process of debriefing.

    I also totally agree with you and the BPS when you say that debriefing is necessary to return the participants to the same mental state they were when they entered the experiment ( however I don’t think the lack of a debriefing process in any way de-validates the results of the study or in any way affect their outcomes as the debriefing process occurs after all the data has been collected.

    Really I would say that yes the debriefing process is totally necessary but the benefits of it are really only benefits to the well-being of the participants involved in the study and do not actively affect the results of the study.

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  15. Hey really good blog, i agree that it is important process that should be followed, but can it always be present. According to ethics is it a part of the research which has to be done in order to do a study due to reasons such as deceiving the participants like in the famous study conducted by milligram. However is it always possible to debrife? Sometimes it may be difficult when observational study is going on and know one knows they are actually be studied, for example in school the poilteness of children could be observed where they say please and thank you or even harder to de-brife the same process but in shopping centres, how many indiviiduals acctually say thank you to the shop assitance or for packing bags. It was be hard to then de-brife people in the comunity.

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