Human Subjects Review (HSR)

Psychological Risk

The examples below are not a complete list, but are provided to help you think about the many ways psychological risk can be introduced in social science and behavioral research, and the kinds of disclosures that must be made to research participants.

  • Loss of time is a discomfort for many individuals, though it usually presents only minimal risk. Researchers should disclose the estimated time needed to participate in a project. The estimate should be based on a pilot study of individuals actually involved in the process. It is often sensible to provide a time range, e.g., “Completion of this survey takes most people 15 to 20 minutes.”  Always err on the side of overestimation.
  • Recalling traumatic or painful events is normally a distressing activity that can cause some level of suffering for your participants. Research that asks subjects to make such recollections constitutes more than minimal risk. The relatively short-term suffering involved within the specific time frame of your study may be followed, for some participants, by an extended period of flashbacks, nightmares, reactivation of fears, or unhappy rumination. Asking individuals to participate in research activating such memories presents more than minimal risk and should never be undertaken lightly. It should not be conducted by students. Examples of such memories include but are not limited to being a victim of torture, rape, violence, or other crime; suffering sexual or other harassment; recalling shameful moments; providing information about one's illnesses; providing information about a family member's illness or death; describing the hassles of living in poverty; describing conflicts with one's partner or spouse, divorce, or other difficult relationships; etc. When engaging in such research, it is common practice to provide the research participants with a list of community resources that can be helpful should counseling needs related to the above occur. Such resources should be those readily available at no or little cost to the individual, since it would be undesirable to have participants spend large amounts in counseling fees as a result of dealing with memories triggered by participation in someone's research. Keep in mind that the provision of such a list alone may not be adequate to minimize the risks presented by some projects of this nature.
  • As a result of participation of behavioral research, some participants may (falsely or correctly) come to identify themselves as having a disorder, disturbance or inferiority.  As examples, a subject responding to a "loneliness" scale may conclude that he or she is very lonely; a subject responding to a "depression" scale may conclude that he or she is depressed. The researcher needs to be aware of the risk and design the research to minimize it. Being careful of the titles given to measuring scales, and providing lists of community resources (as noted above) may be helpful.
  • Members of minority or low-power groups are often aware that research projects have a tendency to conclude that their groups are deficient or undesirable and have no desire to participate in research which furthers such conclusions. For example, a low-income single mother might not wish to participate in research which may conclude that single parenting is detrimental to a child's school success or later romantic relationships. The best solution to this risk is to design the research so that it provides solutions to problems, rather than simply identifying a group as deficient. Failing this, subjects need to be honestly informed of the purpose of the research.
  • Participants should not be subjected without their informed consent to stimuli--images, recordings, reenactments, or actual events--they might wish to avoid. This includes violence; pornography; injuries; invasive medical procedures; animal slaughter; animal cruelty; and others. Similarly, they should not be exposed to smoke, cold, heat, wetness, or other physical stimuli without their informed consent.
  • Boredom, mental fatigue, embarrassment at poor performance, or frustration are minor but common risks. If present, they should be identified on the consent statement.
  • Researchers should avoid impairing the subjects' relationships with others (e.g., asking a dating couple to discuss their conflicts; or asking employees about their dissatisfactions with their supervisors and making such information available to their employer). These and similar research activities present more than minimal risk
  • Questions about income, health habits, use of illegal substances, past criminal activity, etc. may cause unnecessary discomfort to subjects and can be considered more than minimal risk. Refrain from such questions or provide a clear rationale to the IRB about their appropriateness for the proposed research.