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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.

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Today's Wine Glasses Are Almost Seven Times Larger Than They Were in 1700
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Holiday party season (a.k.a. hangover season) is in full swing. While you likely have no one to blame but yourself for drinking that second (or third) pour at the office soiree, your glassware isn't doing you any favors—especially if you live in the UK. Vino vessels in England are nearly seven times larger today than they were in 1700, according to a new study spotted by Live Science. These findings were recently published in the English medical journal The BMJ.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge measured more than 400 wineglasses from the past three centuries to gauge whether glass size affects how much we drink. They dug deep into the history of parties past, perusing both the collections of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the Royal Household's assemblage of glassware (a new set is commissioned for each monarch). They also scoured a vintage catalog, a modern department store, and eBay for examples.

After measuring these cups, researchers concluded that the average wineglass in 1700 held just 2.2 fluid ounces. For comparison's sake, that's the size of a double shot at a bar. Glasses today hold an average of 15.2 fluid ounces, even though a standard single serving size of wine is just 5 ounces.

BMJ infographic detailing increases in wine glass size from 1700 to 2017
BMJ Publishing group Ltd.

Advances in technology and manufacturing are partly to blame for this increase, as is the wine industry. Marketing campaigns promoted the beverage as it increasingly became more affordable and available for purchase, which in turn prompted aficionados to opt for larger pours. Perhaps not surprisingly, this bigger-is-better mindset was also compounded by American drinking habits: Extra-large wineglasses became popular in the U.S. in the 1990s, prompting overseas manufacturers to follow suit.

Wine consumption in both England and America has risen dramatically since the 1960s [PDF]. Cambridge researchers noted that their study doesn't necessarily prove that the rise of super-sized glassware has led to this increase. But their findings do fit a larger trend: previous studies have found that larger plate size can increase food consumption. This might be because they skew our sense of perception, making us think we're consuming less than we actually are. And in the case of wine, in particular, oversized glasses could also heighten our sensory enjoyment, as they might release more of the drink's aroma.

“We cannot infer that the increase in glass size and the rise in wine consumption in England are causally linked,” the study's authors wrote. “Nor can we infer that reducing glass size would cut drinking. Our observation of increasing size does, however, draw attention to wine glass size as an area to investigate further in the context of population health.”

[h/t Live Science]

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Researchers Pore Over the Physics Behind the Layered Latte
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The layered latte isn't the most widely known espresso drink on coffee-shop menus, but it is a scientific curiosity. Instead of a traditional latte, where steamed milk is poured into a shot (or several) of espresso, the layered latte is made by pouring the espresso into a glass of hot milk. The result is an Instagram-friendly drink that features a gradient of milky coffee colors from pure white on the bottom to dark brown on the top. The effect is odd enough that Princeton University researchers decided to explore the fluid dynamics that make it happen, as The New York Times reports.

In a new study in Nature Communications, Princeton engineering professor Howard Stone and his team explore just what creates the distinct horizontal layers pattern of layered latte. To find out, they injected warm, dyed water into a tank filled with warm salt water, mimicking the process of pouring low-density espresso into higher-density steamed milk.

Four different images of a latte forming layers over time
Xue et al., Nature Communications (2017)

According to the study, the layered look of the latte forms over the course of minutes, and can last for "tens of minutes, or even several hours" if the drink isn't stirred. When the espresso-like dyed water was injected into the salt brine, the downward jet of the dyed water floated up to the top of the tank, because the buoyant force of the low-density liquid encountering the higher-density brine forced it upward. The layers become more visible when the hot drink cools down.

The New York Times explains it succinctly:

When the liquids try to mix, layered patterns form as gradients in temperature cause a portion of the liquid to heat up, become lighter and rise, while another, denser portion sinks. This gives rise to convection cells that trap mixtures of similar densities within layers.

This structure can withstand gentle movement, such as a light stirring or sipping, and can stay stable for as long as a day or more. The layers don't disappear until the liquids cool down to room temperature.

But before you go trying to experiment with layering your own lattes, know that it can be trickier than the study—which refers to the process as "haphazardly pouring espresso into a glass of warm milk"—makes it sound. You may need to experiment several times with the speed and height of your pour and the ratio of espresso to milk before you get the look just right.

[h/t The New York Times]

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