Degree In Sight

Eye-tracking technology

Details: A table- or head-mounted device that typically uses infrared light to measure eye movements and gaze direction.

Psychology's use: Reading, visual perception and spoken language experiments.

Perks: The technology offers multiple measures — around three to five eye movements per second per trial — rather than one end measure and also records "proto errors," the brief, nearly undetectable stops your eyes may make: for example, lingering on a bag of candy when prompted to "pick up the candle" because the objects have similar-sounding names.

Pitfalls: Roughly 10 percent of subjects can't be tracked because of the shape of their face or thickness of their eyelashes, says Michael Spivey, PhD, of the University of California, Merced.

Cost: The technology can cost between $20,000 and $40,000, but many psychology departments at large research universities are already equipped with it, says Spivey.

Insider tip: "Some participants will have downward-pointing eyelashes that get in the way of the image of the eye," says Spivey. "An eyelash curler, if they agree to it, will solve some of that problem."

Personal digital assistants

Details: Hand-held computers with touch-screen technology.

Psychology's use: To collect daily data from research participants. Psychologists also use them to solicit feedback on therapy sessions.

Perks: Clinicians can use the up-to-date information to get right to the point in therapy and also track patients' progress. PDA use may also cut down the number of sessions needed, finds research by Brigham Young University psychologist Karstin Slade, PhD. She found that using PDAs with at-risk clients before a therapy session lowered by 2.5 the number of sessions clients needed to reach the same treatment gains.

Pitfalls: Programming PDAs takes some technical know-how, and glitches may demand the attention of your resident geek-on-call, says Slade.

Cost: From $100 to $600 each, depending on the brand, amount of memory and other features.

Insider tip: Brigham Young's Michael Lambert, PhD, says he attaches the devices to a large metal tablet so users remember to return them.

Online surveys

Details: Internet-based questionnaires that researchers can post independently or via Web sites such as SurveyMonkey.com and SuperSurvey.com.

Psychology's use: Large- or small-sample data-gathering for nearly every psychology specialty area.

Perks: Internet surveys can poll a far larger, more diverse sample than is available through your university's "Psychology 101" participant pool. Survey-specialty Web sites walk you through survey design from start to finish, and offer templates, basic analysis, troubleshooting and data security services.

Pitfalls: Taking it to the Web means you can't gauge reactions to questions and have no control over participants' comings and goings, says John Krantz, PhD, a Hanover College psychology professor who maintains "Psychological Research on the Net," a Web site of online experiments and surveys. "You can have a lot of incomplete data and not know what that means," he says.

Cost: SurveyMonkey.com offers free survey design for questionnaires of 10 questions or fewer; building longer surveys costs $19.95 a month or $200 a year. SuperSurvey offers free surveys for up to 25 responses; more complex survey design and maintenance costs $149 a week.

Insider tip: Check out how-to tutorials and review the available survey-design options before you create your questionnaire, surveyors say.

Interactive voice response

Details: Telephone technology that detects callers' spoken responses and key-presses to questions, often used by such businesses as credit card or cable companies to manage high call volume.

Psychology's use: For surveys, daily patient diaries and clinical trial data. It's particularly helpful for surveying on sensitive topics such as sexual behavior or drug and alcohol use or with populations that don't have Internet access.

Perks: Convenience. "Anyone can do it because most everyone has a phone," says researcher Gail Rose, PhD, of the University of Vermont School of Medicine, who uses IVR in her research and treatment programs. IVR also time-stamps calls, which can soothe the minds of researchers wondering whether participants wrote their "daily" self-reports in a chunk at the week's end.

Pitfalls: "We struggle with how to keep it as user-friendly as possible," says Rose, noting that people prefer systems with limited response options and having the option to skip prompts they are already familiar with.
Also, as Rose's research team's needs got more sophisticated, they had to hire an outside company to program and host the system.

Cost: Survey design can cost between $2,000 and $4,000, depending on the length of the survey, estimates Rose. She also pays a $1,500 a month hosting fee. Don't have that kind of cash? Broker a cheaper deal with a computer-savvy friend or relative, as Old Dominion University's Louis Janda, PhD, did with his techie son.

Insider tip: Participants forgetting to call in? IVR can hunt them down for you by calling participants at a particular time each day, says Janda.

MEMS caps

Details: Medication Event Monitoring System caps are pill-bottle lids equipped with a microchip that records bottle openings.

Psychology's use: Research on medication adherence, such as to antiretroviral drugs.

Perks: MEMS eliminate the need for study participants to remember to write down when they took their pills. Researchers love the easy-to-digest, calendar-style data.

Pitfalls: MEMS are pricy and, for sanitary reasons, they can't be passed from one user to another. What's more, you put your caps in possible jeopardy when you hand them over to your participant pool, says Yale researcher Nancy Radcliffe Reynolds, PhD, who has fielded calls about drowned caps and other mysterious disappearances. "If people lose them, you lose all the data," she points out. The data can also be deceiving: Participants have been known to take the cap off, replace it, then actually take the medicine later. "Sometimes we are getting greater than 100 percent adherence," says Reynolds.

Cost: $100 per cap.

Insider tip: Reynolds recalls caps from participants every three months to head off losing too much data if a cap goes missing. As a backup, she also asks her participants to self-report their dosing times.

By Jamie Chamberlin
gradPSYCH Staff