What Should We Do When Participants Report Dangerous Drinking? The Impact of Personalized Letters Versus General Pamphlets as a Function of Sex and Controlled Orientation

Ethics and Behavior 22 (1):1 - 15 (2011)
Abstract
Research in which participants report potentially dangerous health-related behaviors raises ethical and professional questions about what to do with that information. Policies and laws regarding reportable behaviors vary across states and Institutional Review Boards (IRB). In alcohol research, IRBs often require researchers to respond to participants who report dangerous drinking practices. Researchers have little guidance regarding how best to respond in such cases. Personalized feedback or general nonpersonalized information may prove differentially effective as a function of gender and/or level of self-determination. This study evaluated response strategies for reducing peak blood alcohol concentration (BAC) among participants reporting dangerous BACs (≥ .35%) in the context of a two-year longitudinal intervention trial with 818 heavy drinking college students. After each assessment, participants who reported drinking to estimated BACs at or greater than .35% were sent either a personalized letter expressing concern and indicating their reported BAC or a nonpersonalized pamphlet that included general information about alcohol and other substances, referral information, and a BAC handout. Hierarchical linear modeling results revealed that both strategies were associated with reduced peak BAC when controlling for previous BAC. The personalized letter was more effective for women and for students who tend to regulate their behavior based on others' expectations and contingencies in the environment. This research provides some guidance for researchers considering appropriate responses to participants who report dangerous health behavior in the context of a research trial
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