Cognitive Research in the Urban Jungle?

Oliver Robinson 1“Hi, I’m a researcher from the University and I’m calling because you expressed an interest in our study.” Recruitment probably accounts for upwards of fifty percent of junior cognitive neuroscientists’ time, with success rates heavily dependent upon whatever cruelly draconian inclusion criteria their PI has dreamt up. But what if I told you that sometimes you can make it so the participants come to you? And they won’t even ask for compensation? And they might even form lines around the block such that you recruit a sample of 50 in a few hours? “Impossible!” you say. Well it can happen, and I have seen it with my own eyes.

Our forays into what you might term ‘psychological field work’ began in early 2015 when an organiser at the Royal Institution contacted us about contributing to their upcoming event “Questioning Reality”. They asked if we had some form of demonstration that we could use to explain our work to their attendees. We could, we thought, set up a faux experiment to show them how we work. But then, perhaps they would want to be a faux participant? We do fun things like shock people with electrodes; maybe some of them would want to try it out? And, then, if you’re going to go to the trouble of wiring them up, why not actually consent them and collect data?

Oliver Robinson 2A few months and an ethics amendment later, myself and a team of intrepid fellow field workers traipsed down Shaftesbury Avenue with our alarmingly expensive equipment in large canvas bags (don’t ask me why we didn’t just get a taxi). We were directed to the corner of a book-lined room in the Royal Institution. We set up two laptops, two shock machines and a table to take consents. And then the crowds descended. The next three hours were a busy chaos of people swapped in and out of our machines. We tested excited people, nervous people, young people, old people, sober people and even drunk people. At two separate points, different people pulled me aside to ask if I knew about erotic electrostimulation. Then proceeded to fully enlighten me. I thanked them for their time.

And then, bam! we had a sample of 47 people. A sample of people tested in a not terribly controlled environment, but a sample none the less. We got some results and we wrote them up. You can read all about them here: https://peerj.com/preprints/1542/. In summary, we showed that, even with all the noise and the drinking and the chaos, some of our predictions still held. Specifically, threatening people with electrical shocks made them slower to identify emotional expressions from faces. This chimed well with some of our recent lab-based work with similar tasks (currently being written up).

Several months later, the Wellcome Collection came to us with a very similar request. This time we knew exactly what to do. We had proposed tweaks to our task in our paper. We made them, we tested them. This time the queues were even longer. At one point we heard tell of a line of over a thousand people snaking around the Wellcome Collection. Needless to say, our sample was even larger this time. Analysis is still ongoing, but – to give you a sneak peak – I’m fairly confident we replicated our last effect, and – I think – some of our tweaks worked in the way we predicted. You’ll have to watch this space (oliverjrobinson.com/ or @olijrobinson) to find out more.

So, I think there is something to be said for psychological fieldwork. You obviously have pretty poor control over your experimental environment. But then there is an argument that life is a pretty poor experimental environment. Data collected in a dark basement might not extrapolate well to a noisy, drunken party; but data collected in a noisy, drunken party just might. There is also something to be said for going from naught to full sample in a single night.

More importantly, perhaps, you give the general public a sneak peak into a world they don’t usually get to see. A snapshot of how our research works. Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind you just how cool it is that we get to do this kind of stuff on a daily basis. Over the course of both events I had many interesting, insightful conversations about what we do. Most people had a take that was fresh and frequently surprising (no, I was not terribly familiar with erotic electrostimulation before, but I certainly am now!). As an exercise in science communication I would recommend it highly. Throw in some rapid data collection, a fairly decent sample size and I can think of far less productive ways to spend an evening (for more info see here: Friday Late Spectacular Feeling Emotional Programme / Questioning Reality Floorplan)

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