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Univ. of North Carolina at Charlotte
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Charles L. Brewer
X: Jim, your first year in grad school was pretty hard, wasn’t it?
Y: Yes, in our last “Corner” I cried a lot, bringing out that famous comparison between going to grad school and drinking from an open fire hydrant. Now I have it all figured out. Don’t drink the water! You can dig an irrigation system instead.
X: That’s pretty weird, Jim-- all these engineers around here are affecting you. What have you got to say for yourself this time?
Y: We have great opportunities that weren’t available even a short time ago when many of our advisers were in school! Experiments on the World Wide Web are feasible now with minimal resources and I predict they will yield increasingly big payoffs for us in the future.
X: Wait a minute! I know you can collect mountains of data that way, but what about control? You might get a lot of junk if you jump on that bandwagon. Experimentalists like me recoil at the very notion.
Y: That was my first reaction too. But looking at a special issue of the APA’s Monitor on Psychology (2000), and a book, Psychological Experiments on the Internet (2000), eased many of my concerns (links below). I don’t think we should get rid of our lab facilities, but using the Web can enhance the value of the information we get there. People have had success validating data obtained from Web samples against data collected in the lab (and vice-versa). And you’d like all that power, wouldn’t you? And wouldn’t it be interesting to explore a distribution of (for example) “working memory capacity” from upwards of tens of 1000s of measurements.
X: But how would you know if someone is “cheating,” not paying attention, or not providing true demographic information about themselves, in short, not being a “good participant”?
Y: Accidental or intentional multiple submissions can be detected using IP addresses. Malicious or mischievous behavior happens pretty rarely, but what if someone did inflate their memory span by using pencil-and-paper? There are ways to catch such problem data by looking for anomalous relationships to other measures. And how much harm would it really do in a sample of over 1000 people? To find out, we could run a simulation or even do a small study where we actually instructed some participants to “cheat.” Maybe it wouldn’t really matter as much as we fear (and we don’t know if we haven’t tested it).
Also, consider that a typical person who volunteers for an on-line study is likely to be at least as motivated by sincere interest as an undergrad that just wants to get course credit. The Web format enables diverse types of feedback, such as viewing one’s performance against a reference distribution, and this can be motivating to participants as well. If a person has questions about how to do the task, e-mail could be used, or even a menu of FAQs.
X: Well, think about someone participating at an airport kiosk. There would be a lot of distractions and interruptions and so forth. We would then be measuring performance more under “typical” conditions rather than “ideal” ones. Hey! Come to think of it, that might be a good thing, in terms of showing more relevance to applied settings. It could get us closer to “real-world” situations like the workplace. Granting agencies would probably look favorably on that, too.
Y: Great point! I don’t recall any papers discussing that, but many addressed the potentially greater generalization of Web samples.
X: It seems like Web experiments would also be good for people who want to work with special populations, like kids or patients. You wouldn’t have to actually travel with your equipment to different sites to collect data.
Y: Easier access to target populations was noted by most of my sources, but again they looked at it slightly differently. Another great thing they talked about was increasing the transparency of psychological research to the public. Think about it! If more people can experience first-hand the phenomena we study they might see how research can help them understand their own lives better. It certainly would benefit society (especially us) to improve and enrich public understanding of (psychological) science.
X: I’m concerned about privacy issues. We would have a lot of personal data in our files and sent over a network.
Y: There’s encryption and other technical solutions. Data security is always a big concern, whether on-line or on-site.
X: There would also be some fee-related issues to sort out using commercial tests, but it would be great to have norms from so much data. Perhaps a special agreement could be reached for reduced rates given the large number of test-takers involved.
On-line labs are also used to teach psychology and foster communication between researchers. And I can see how the method would be directly useful to engineering psychologists, too. Yes, I’m starting to see vast promise, and feel confident that there are technical solutions to most problems. But why should a graduate student invest the time and effort to get involved with all that programming, monitoring, and so on?
Y: We have discussed a lot of direct benefits that could accrue to any researcher, graduate or otherwise. Programming skills can’t hurt you on the job market either. There’s also the chance that you land your first job at an institution that is less than flush with research money. Your start-up might only just buy a computer. Wouldn’t you like to already know how to maximize its value during your critical early tenure-track years?
X: Only in your second year but already thinking of how you’re going to spend your start-up money? I like your style, Jim.
Y: The big money is the reason I decided to be a grad student in the first place. We’re obviously not going to make a living as writers.