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Smartphones can be used for psychology experiments

Posted July 17, 2014
Screenshot of the app, while playing the stop-signal reaction time game.

Screenshot of the app, while playing the stop-signal reaction time game.

Limitations of traditional laboratory studies can be fixed by online experiments. However, many scientists remain cautious, because web-based investigations have their own shortcomings. In order to resolve this controversy, researchers at the universities of Birmingham and Oxford created smartphone-application allowing participation in four classical psychology experiments.

“We found that the large sample size vastly outweighed the noise inherent in collecting data outside a controlled laboratory setting, and show that for all four games canonical results were reproduced,” they claim.

The usual way to collect data needed for psychologists is to organize a laboratory experiment. Unfortunately, this procedure has various shortcomings. For instance, it strongly limits the sample size. In addition, samples often are pretty homogenous as most of the participants are university students younger than 30 years old. Although online investigations have their own limitations, they allow to avoid these problems. “The ‘big data’, although in principle noisier and less well controlled than small-scale laboratory studies, has the potential to uncover subtle effects such as individual differences, temporal trends and the influence of lifestyle and demographic factors on performance,” the scientists say.

A team of scholars led by Harriet R. Brown devised a new application called “The Great Brain Experiment”. Smartphone users could become participants of the simple games. For instance, they were able to perform selective stop-signal task which assesses inhibitory ability. “Fruit fell from the tree and participants were asked to tap simultaneously on both sides of the screen as the fruit passed through the circles. If a piece of fruit turned brown during its fall, participants had to inhibit their response on that side,” the psychologists explain. They managed to confirm the validity of their approach and successfully replicate results which were obtained by numerous laboratory studies.

Brown and her colleagues plan to improve their technology in the near future. “We are currently extending the capabilities of the app, adding further experiments in the auditory and motor domains, as well as allowing researchers to invite participants for laboratory-based research based on their performance in the app,” they say. The scholars hope that such applications can work as scanner allowing to detect rare cases.

Research article: Brown HR, Zeidman P, Smittenaar P, Adams RA, McNab F, et al. (2014) Crowdsourcing for Cognitive Science – The Utility of Smartphones. PLoS ONE 9(7): e100662. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100662, source link.

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