How Smartphones Could Keep Psychology From Getting Too WEIRD

In 2004, I was a lab rat for about 15 minutes. A psychology professor at Juniata College, where I spent my freshman year, was conducting an experiment. I don’t remember what exactly he was studying, but it involved video games. He put up posters around campus and gathered a bunch of volunteers in a campus building basement to frag each other in several rounds of Unreal Tournament. I lost pretty quickly, but did my part. I think I got a game store gift card for my time.

Now ideally, if you want to learn anything useful about human brains and behavior, you try to get a large and diverse group of people to draw your conclusions from. But as Canadian psychologist Joseph Henrich and colleagues revealed in a 2010 paper in Behavioral Brain Sciences, a lot of psych studies are done the same way as the one I participated in.

That is, they test ideas by looking at small and homogeneous groups of volunteers brought to college campuses and research facilities, usually drawing those volunteers from the school’s student body or the local population. (The rest of the guys in my study were, like me, all white male undergrads who liked playing first person shooters.)

WEIRD Science

Henrich’s team looked at hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals, and found that 68 percent of the research subjects came from the United States, and 67 percent of those were undergraduate psychology students. Overall, 96 percent of the subjects came from Western industrialized countries that, together, make up only 12 percent of the world's population. Frequently, studies that claim to reveal something universal about the human brain or our behavior are really just extrapolating results from the same (relatively) small groups.

This kind of study-building method results in the overrepresentation of a population that the authors dub WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Sure, we’re all human. We’re all working with more or less the same software in our skulls. But, the researchers say, culture and environment play a role in shaping how we use that software. There are important differences in the way my brain works versus, say, a rural farmer in China, versus a member of a hunter-gatherer tribe on an island in the South Pacific, when it comes to areas like “visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ.”

“The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans,” the paper continues. We, the WEIRD ones, are actually  “highly unrepresentative of the species,” but form the basis for so much of what we think we know about ourselves.

Henrich and his colleagues call for their fellow scientists to collect comparative data across culturally and geographically diverse populations before drawing conclusions about our species as a whole. But how do you do that? With shrinking funding and small staffs, it’s not always feasible, to conduct a study in your own lab and then go elsewhere to get a different sample, or even to try to attract a diverse sample to you. Researchers have tried to get volunteers from the far reaches of the globe to participate in web-based studies, but found that mice and keyboards and web page interfaces couldn’t provide the precision necessary for understanding the subtle details and changes of cognitive processes and behavioral responses.

Pick up the Phone

But now there’s a new way to bring non-WEIRD volunteers right to the researchers. The number of smartphone users worldwide is expected to top one billion by next year. The technology has found a home in almost every social group in every part of the world, Western and Eastern, educated and not, industrialized and agrarian, rich and poor, democratic, autocratic and theocratic. Not only are they everywhere, but they’re well suited to collecting scientific data. They can transmit and receive multiple types of media and commands, can transfer time- and location-coded data, and can time, down to the millisecond, stimuli display and touchscreen responses. They are, an international team of scientists suggested last year, ideally adapted to studying cognitive function and could be used as a “multi-dimensional scientific ‘instrument’ capable of experimentation on a previously unthought-of scale” that could reveal things about the human mind long hidden by smaller experiments.

Researchers could take advantage of smartphones to revolutionize research in cognitive science, the paper argues, but the studies and the technology have to come together in a way that makes it work. To see if smartphones could live up to their promise in a real-world study, Stephane Dufau, the lead author, and her team took their idea for a road-test, without ever leaving the lab.

An App for That

The researchers developed an iPhone/iPad app that replicates the "lexical decision task,” a test used by generations of psychologists. By measuring response time and accuracy in deciding if a given string of letters is a word (e.g. “table”) or not (e.g. “tible”), researchers have gained insight into the cognitive processes involved in reading, as well as reading impairments like dyslexia. The app, called Science XL, was made free for the general public to download from the App Store in seven different languages in December 2010. By March, 2011, the team had collected results from over four thousand participants, a number they say would have taken several years, and considerably more money, to collect via more conventional means.

The results collected so far are similar to those obtained by running the test in laboratory conditions and match many of the known features of this type of data, indicating that an app-based study like this doesn’t introduce variables that affect the results.

Another team of American researchers launched a similar app-based study to look at age-related differences in cognition. They got 15,000 people to participate and their results replicated specific patterns and data found in lab experiments. This study did reveal some problems with the app-based data collection, though. One hindrance the researchers noted is the lack of ability they had to monitor the participants. Their app instructions recommended that users complete their tasks without distractions, but there’s no way they could tell if someone used the app while multitasking or in a noisy environment, which might affect their performance.

Since there’s no obligation or accountability for completing the tasks, there was also a higher participant dropout rate than in many lab studies. Still, the researchers say that the larger sample size that the app gave them access to compensated for the loss in data amount and quality.

These two studies suggest smartphones are a reliable way to collect culturally and geographically diverse data on an enormous scale. The smartphone, far from being just a gadget that lets you tweet from the bathroom, could be as important to scientific exploration as the microscope or the lunar lander. They could potentially allow for direct tests of the universality of cognitive theories and make our understanding of ourselves a little less WEIRD.

The Science XL study is ongoing, so if you want to take part, the app is free to download from iTunes AppStore.

Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Buckingham Palace Was Built With Jurassic Fossils, Scientists Find

The UK's Buckingham Palace is a vestige from another era, and not just because it was built in the early 18th century. According to a new study, the limestone used to construct it is filled with the fossilized remains of microbes from the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago, as The Telegraph reports.

The palace is made of oolitic limestone, which consists of individual balls of carbonate sediment called ooids. The material is strong but lightweight, and is found worldwide. Jurassic oolite has been used to construct numerous famous buildings, from those in the British city of Bath to the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

A new study from Australian National University published in Scientific Reports found that the spherical ooids in Buckingham Palace's walls are made up of layers and layers of mineralized microbes. Inspired by a mathematical model from the 1970s for predicting the growth of brain tumors, the researchers created a model that explains how ooids are created and predicts the factors that limit their ultimate size.

A hand holding a chunk of oolite limestone
Australian National University

They found that the mineralization of the microbes forms the central core of the ooid, and the layers of sediment that gather around that core feed those microbes until the nutrients can no longer reach the core from the outermost layer.

This contrasts with previous research on how ooids form, which hypothesized that they are the result of sediment gathered from rolling on the ocean floor. It also reshapes how we think about the buildings made out of oolitic limestone from this period. Next time you look up at the Empire State Building or Buckingham Palace, thank the ancient microbes.

[h/t The Telegraph]

Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
10 Astonishing Things You Should Know About the Milky Way
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Our little star and the tiny planets that circle it are part of a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its name comes from the Greek galaxias kyklos ("milky circle") and Latin via lactea ("milky road"). Find a remote area in a national park, miles from the nearest street light, and you'll see exactly why the name makes sense and what all the fuss is about. Above is not a sky of black, but a luminous sea of whites, blues, greens, and tans. Here are a few things you might not know about our spiraling home in the universe.


The Milky Way galaxy is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers (about 621,371,000,000,000,000 miles) across. Even traveling at the speed of light, it would still take you well over 100,000 years to go from one end of the galaxy to the other. So it's big. Not quite as big as space itself, which is "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big," as Douglas Adams wrote, but respectably large. And that's just one galaxy. Consider how many galaxies there are in the universe: One recent estimate says 2 trillion.


artist's illustration of the milky way galaxy and its center
An artist's concept of the Milky Way and the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* at its core.
ESA–C. Carreau

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy composed of an estimated 300 billion stars, along with dust, gas, and celestial phenomena such as nebulae, all of which orbits around a hub of sorts called the Galactic Center, with a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star") at its core. The bar refers to the characteristic arrangement of stars at the interior of the galaxy, with interstellar gas essentially being channeled inward to feed an interstellar nursery. There are four spiral arms of the galaxy, with the Sun residing on the inner part of a minor arm called Orion. We're located in the boondocks of the Milky Way, but that is OK. There is definitely life here, but everywhere else is a question mark. For all we know, this might be the galactic Paris.


If you looked at all the spiral galaxies in the local volume of the universe, the Milky Way wouldn't stand out as being much different than any other. "As galaxies go, the Milky Way is pretty ordinary for its type," Steve Majewski, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia and the principal investigator on the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE), tells Mental Floss. "It's got a pretty regular form. It's got its usual complement of star clusters around it. It's got a supermassive black hole in the center, which most galaxies seem to indicate they have. From that point of view, the Milky Way is a pretty run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy."


On the other hand, he tells Mental Floss, spiral galaxies in general tend to be larger than most other types of galaxies. "If you did a census of all the galaxies in the universe, the Milky Way would seem rather unusual because it is very big, our type being one of the biggest kinds of galaxies that there are in the universe." From a human perspective, the most important thing about the Milky Way is that it definitely managed to produce life. If they exist, the creatures in Andromeda, the galaxy next door (see #9), probably feel the same way about their own.


John McSporran, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

We have a very close-up view of the phenomena and forces at work in the Milky Way because we live inside of it, but that internal perspective places astronomers at a disadvantage when it comes to determining a galactic pattern. "We have a nice view of the Andromeda galaxy because we can see the whole thing laid out in front of us," Majewski says. "We don't have that opportunity in the Milky Way."

To figure out its structure, astronomers have to think like band members during a football halftime show. Though spectators in the stands can easily see the letters and shapes being made on the field by the marchers, the band can't see the shapes they are making. Rather, they can only work together in some coordinated way, moving to make these patterns and motions on the field. So it is with telescopes and stars.


Interstellar dust further stymies astronomers. "That dust blocks our light, our view of the more distant parts of the Milky Way," Majewski says. "There are areas of the galaxy that are relatively obscured from view because they are behind huge columns of dust that we can't see through in the optical wavelengths that our eyes work in." To ameliorate this problem, astronomers sometimes work in longer wavelengths such as radio or infrared, which lessen the effects of the dust.


Astronomers can make pretty reasonable estimates of the mass of the galaxy by the amount of light they can see. They can count the galaxy's stars and calculate how much those stars should weigh. They can account for all the dust in the galaxy and all of the gas. And when they tally the mass of everything they can see, they find that it is far short of what is needed to account for the gravity that causes the Milky Way to spin.

In short, our Sun is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the galaxy, and astronomers know that it goes around the galaxy at about 144 miles per second. "If you calculate it based on the amount of matter interior to the orbit of the Sun, how fast we should be going around, the number you should get is around 150 or 160 kilometers [93–99 miles] per second," Majewski says. "Further out, the stars are rotating even faster than they should if you just account for what we call luminous matter. Clearly there is some other substance in the Milky Way exerting a gravitational effect. We call it dark matter."


Dark matter is a big problem in galactic studies. "In the Milky Way, we study it by looking at the orbits of stars and star clusters and satellite galaxies, and then trying to figure out how much mass do we need interior to the orbit of that thing to get it moving at the speed that we can measure," Majewski says. "And so by doing this kind of analysis for objects at different radii across the galaxy, we actually have a fairly good idea of the distribution of the dark matter in the Milky Way—and yet we still have no idea what the dark matter is."


andromeda galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy
ESA/Hubble & NASA

Sometime in the next 4 or 5 billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will smash into each other. The two galaxies are about the same size and have about the same number of stars, but there is no cause for alarm. "Even though there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy and a comparable number, or maybe more, in Andromeda, when they collide together, not a single star is expected to hit another star. The space between stars is that vast," Majewski says.


There are countless spacecraft and telescopes studying the Milky Way. Most famous is the Hubble Space Telescope, while other space telescopes such as Chandra, Spitzer, and Kepler are also returning data to help astronomers unlock the mysteries of our swirling patch of stars. The next landmark telescope in development is NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. It should finally launch in 2019. Meanwhile, such ambitious projects as APOGEE are working out the structure and evolution of our spiral home by doing "galactic archaeology." APOGEE is a survey of the Milky Way using spectroscopy, measuring the chemical compositions of hundreds of thousands of stars across the galaxy in great detail. The properties of stars around us are fossil evidence of their formation, which, when combined with their ages, helps astronomers understand the timeline and evolution of the galaxy we call home. 


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