Informed Consent and Debriefing Matters

(especially for emotion science)

Eliza Bliss-Moreau

I always thought that our first set of posts on Emotion News would be focused on the history of emotion science or a discussion about why the science of emotion matters for Regular Joe or Jane’s daily life. While attending a recent meeting, Kristen and I discussed the “Facebook-“Emotion-Manipulation” Debacle” that was still surging on the internet after more than a week in the news, though, and realized that we had different views about its importance for Emotion Science. So, we figured that we’d make our inaugural blog posts about it, hopefully setting the tone for our blog: emotion science matters for everyone; we don’t always agree on the how or why; and it’s important to have a forum to discuss these issues.

Many of the issues with the study on “emotion contagion” done by Facebook have been reviewed in detail elsewhere. In brief, they range from concerns that the conclusions about emotion spreading via social media are over blown to concerns that the manipulation of emotional information on people’s Facebook feeds was unethical. It would take pages to detail them all, so I’ve decided to focus on one aspect of the ethical complaint: were participants in the Facebook study properly informed of the experiment?

Facebook, and others, have argued that agreeing to their data use policy constitutes “informed consent”. Informed consent is the permission that scientists get from people to conduct and experiment with (or on) them (or the permission that clinicians get to provide medical treatment in a hospital or clinic setting). Rules vary a bit from institution-to-insitution and nation-to-nation but in general, informed consent procedures typically give people an idea of what they’re getting into—a general overview of the experimental study or procedure, some information about its purpose, and almost always the explicit option to end participation at any time without any consequence. Informed consent information is required to be clearly written and in common language. In cases where there might be concern about potential participants’ understanding the consent information, scientists are typically required to discuss all of the information with them.

To be clear, informed consent is not associated with all data. The panels of people that review the ethical implications of studies, called Institutional Review Boards, sometimes wave the requirement for informed consent when the impacts of the study are deemed to be minimal, where sensitive data will not be collected, or where the procedures are deemed to be comparable to things that people would normally do on a day-to-day basis, among other reasons. Further, as people in the digital age, we generate a lot of data—we click around on the internet, information about our salaries and demographics is recorded by the government, even information about our health ends up in digital archives. Scientists can typically use these data troves to test their hypotheses. Access to data sources is typically granted via an institution (either the college or university or agency at which the scientists works or the one that holds the data), but as an individual who has generated data points, you may never be informed about a specific hypothesis test being done on “your” data. The question is whether the Facebook study fits into any of these categories of research. Some argue yes, some argue no.

Informed consent is almost always required in cases where scientists are substantially manipulating some aspect of human experience. And that is what Facebook claims to have done (although the jury is out about whether or not their claims represent a substantial manipulation of experience). Given that, it is not clear that the data usage policy is sufficient to be an actual informed consent.

Users of Facebook agree to a data usage policy which basically says that Facebook can use the data you generate (posts, likes, comments, and so on) as they wish. Many users agreed to the data usage policy well before the actual experiment and it’s likely that many did not read it completely. While the latter issue is the problem of individuals, there is growing concern that many usage policies (called End User License Agreements or EULAs) are actually too long to read—like you would have to spend, literally, months reading them. If companies are creating EULAs that are literally too long to read knowing that people are not reading them, do they count as informed consent? Further, because data usage agreements may have been completed long before the experiment, we didn’t know when the experiment would take place and therefore had no ability to opt out (which could have been as easy as not opening Facebook during the experiment).

While we typically focus on the informed consent procedures that happen before people complete experiments, how people are informed about the experiments after their data has been collected also counts. In emotion science, it is sometimes, even often, the case that we don’t tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth during informed consent procedures. We might tell you that you’ll be listening to music and then complete a few questionnaires about who you are when we are actually using the music to induce a positive or negative mood and measuring whether your mood changes with the questions. We might even tell you a completely made up story about what you’re doing and why (called a “cover story”). These procedures are used because what you know about a study can actually bias how you respond. But, at the end of the study, we come clean in what is called a “debriefing”. We give you more information about the study and why you completed the procedures that you did and even why a cover story was required. Some debriefings also give participants an option to have their data removed from the archive once they know the true purpose of the study. Publishing a paper full of findings, like Facebook did, does not constitute a debriefing.

The primary success of the Facebook study may be that it has gotten scientists and the public talking about these issues. Since the dawn of the internet, we’ve been creating a lot of data. As the cost of storing that data falls, collection of and long term archiving of that data becomes possible. It’s time to think seriously about how we inform people about how their data is being used and what sorts of ethical principles will guide the design of large internet studies in the future. Especially, if we plan to manipulate emotions.

Welcome to Emotion News!

Dear Readers,

Welcome to Emotion News, a new blog about the science of emotion. We are psychologists and neuroscientists who study the nature of emotions—what they are, how they are created by the brain and body, and how they shape every aspect of our lives. For more on our backgrounds, check out the About the Founders page. Most of the time, we conduct studies with humans or animals and write up our results for scientific audiences. But it seemed increasingly clear to us that there should be a venue for sharing this work more directly with the public, so we started this blog.

We saw a need for Emotion News for several reasons. First and foremost, people are intrinsically interested in emotions, and for good reason. Google the term “emotions,” and it returns 94,600 news articles referencing emotions in less than a second. Yet a lot of the information out there about what emotions are and what they do is just not accurate. People ask us all the time whether it’s true that the right side of the brain is the “emotional side” and the left side of the brain is the “rational side” (nope). Or whether a brain scan can really read their innermost feelings (not really). Or whether men are really biologically tuned to be less emotional than women (most signs point to no). Or whether animals have human-like emotions (the jury is definitely out on that one). In science, things are more gray than black or white, although that’s not how science tends to end up represented in the main-stream media. So we thought it was time for another forum in which emotion scientists write about the science.

We also thought that this blog was necessary because emotions are incredibly important to well, everything, and the public deserves to be educated about them. There is the pervasive impression in our culture that emotions are at worst, dangerous, and at best, frivolous and trivial aspects of human nature. Emotions make us “animal-like” the story goes, and then our evolved human reason has to step in to control our behavior. Of course, we’re biased—we’ve dedicated our careers to studying the nature of emotion—but it is a fact that emotions are absolutely essential to many aspects of what it is to be a human and they deserve our attention. Many years of research shows that emotions contribute to both psychological maladies and psychological flourishing. Stress-related emotions can reach under your skin to actually change how fast you’re aging. By contrast, people who look on the bright side of life have better cardiovascular health. Children who understand their own emotions and the emotions of others do better in school and are better leaders. Emotions shape our romantic relationships, predicting who gets together and stays together v. whose relationship falls apart. Emotions also shape every single decision we make on a day-to-day basis: altering whether we decide to eat v. forego another cupcake, whether we splurge on a new car v. invest in our 401 K, or whether we deem someone trustworthy v. dishonest. The belief that we can reliably “read emotions” in others causes TSA agents to give some people the extra pat down in the security lines at airports (even though US programs that trained TSA agents to diagnose potential terrorists based on emotional facial expressions and body language have largely failed to identify terrorists at airport). Finally, it seems clear that emotions are at the heart of many of the world’s most intractable conflicts. If knowing is half the battle, then we hope that making accurate information accessible will help both individuals, and by extension, society.

In short, our Mission is to bring you cutting-edge research from scientific labs around the globe, cutting out the scientific jargon, but still accurately presenting the story behind the findings. Because emotion crosscuts so many domains of research, we will represent research about emotions from diverse areas of research including social psychology, neuroscience, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, comparative psychology, and genetics. We will also invite colleagues from around the globe to share their own research and diverse outlooks. (Stay tuned, colleagues for invitations or get in touch with us if you have story ideas!) Our goal is to have novel content posted weekly as we gear up, and then hopefully multiple times a week (in a few months). Our aim is for Emotion News to be an open venue for discussion and commentary. Please see our commenting and editorial policies for more information. We hope you will join in!

Kristen & Eliza