Surveys, scans and Starbucks

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For many of us, our ideas about what is involved in psychology research come from hyperbolic headlines in tabloids. Yet ironically, these articles often miss the true wonder of psychological discovery, which lies in its complexity rather than a bite-size conclusion. Here at the University of St Andrews, our Psychology Department has become a leading research giant in the UK and beyond. Staff and researchers publish cutting edge reports covering everything from human attraction, to theory of mind, to déjà vu. However, the unsung heroes of psychology, without whom progress would prove impossible, are the research participants themselves.

Dr Akira O’Connor, a lecturer in the Psychology Department, believes student participation is extremely important for psychological research: “It’s a wonderful thing to do in that you are really giving something back to the research community that is advancing our knowledge of how cognition works.”

He added that this improved understanding of cognition may later have practical applications, and could ultimately lead to the development of new drugs or the discovery of cures.

So what motivates students to flock to take part in psychological research studies?

One reason Dr O’Connor highlights is that participating in studies is a fantastic way to learn more about research methods. For psychology students, the behind the scenes insight into experimental design is invaluable. Dr O’Connor has a rule of thumb that he wouldn’t have any of his researchers or PhD students run a study that they haven’t taken part in themselves.

According to Dr O’Connor, if one of his pupils wouldn’t be willing to use magnetic stimulation to zap a bit of their brain, then they shouldn’t be doing it to other people. “It gives students an idea of what people are going through when they are doing studies,” he said. He believes empathy is essential for designing and running ethical and successful studies.

However, Dr O’Connor notes that participation is open to all students, not just psychology students. This is important for ensuring that the data is based on a diverse sample of the population. He explained that “historically, [psychology] has suffered from sampling the same types of people. It’s better that [psychologists] increase participation across the full range of people in the community.” He believes the first step towards that is getting everyone from the university to take part.

A less academic motivation for participation is the financial compensation offered by many psychological studies. The Psychology Department has a fund that researchers can use to compensate students for their time. Dr O’Connor notes that this “shows that [the department] values both the time and cognitive commitment it takes going through a study.”

Typically, students can be expected to be paid at a rate of £5 an hour, although this amount may be increased for more involved participation, such as travelling to Dundee to participate in a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagining) study.

Ms Chloe Edwards, a second year psychology and philosophy student, participated in one such fMRI study on memory earlier this year and explains her reasons for participating as threefold: “You help out fellow students and researchers, while earning a bit of money for doing something really interesting and unique with your free time.” Even if the promise of learning something about human consciousness does not clinch the deal, it is a rare student who can resist the opportunity for such a renewable coffee fund.

One of the best ways to make the experience of participating in a study worthwhile is to find one that suits your interests. Ms Edwards found out about the study she participated in via a poster on the library notice board, and other adverts can be found in the psychology building’s reception and on University memos. The Psychology Department also uses an online system called SONA to recruit participants, which matches students who register to studies happening at the University.

As Dr O’Connor explains, “SONA is where people can make an informed decision about what they want to participate in. If you are particularly interested in finding out how people research attention, memory or perception just have a look and the titles should be informative enough and you can then click on it and see what you would have to do and how you would be compensated.”

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Dr O’Connor’s own research into the phenomena of déjà vu provides a fascinating example of the kind of studies students from the University can choose to participate in.

Studying such an ineffable sensation as déjà vu requires ingenuity and rigour. Dr O’Connor’s fMRI study uses a recently developed method of generating déjà vu-esque sensations, based on a procedure by Josie Urquhart. Participants are presented with a list of related words, such as bed, pillow, night, dream, but crucially the linking word, sleep, is omitted. Previous studies have found that participants seem to generate a false memory of the linking word and will report having heard it. In Dr O’Connor’s study, participants are asked further questions about the words they heard, such as how many letters are in the words, in order to investigate whether memory systems correct themselves when participants realise they have not heard the linking word.

Excitingly, Dr O’Connor’s research is thought to be the first time that participants undergoing a déjà vu-like experience have been imaged using fMRI. Drawing on the results of fMRI scans of 21 participants, Dr O’Connor’s findings provide insight into our self-correcting memory systems. He believes his work suggests that people “have a kind of memory machinery in our brain, and sometimes that machinery goes wrong and it sends bad signals that we then have to correct in order to have a normal coherent experience of the world.”

Dr O’Connor adds that this model of memory explains what goes wrong in a lot of patients who have clinical déjà vu to the point where they actually start acting on their sensations. He explained that sometimes older adults who have dementia start experiencing clinical manifestations of déjà vu and will withdraw from activity because they feel like they’ve done it before.

Another growing method of participation can be found online. The great advantage of using the Internet to find participants is that people from all around the world can take part in a study, vastly improving the diversity of the sample.

Because some online studies pay participants, researchers are at the mercy of programmers who may develop online robots that can take studies as quickly as possible and then claim the reward. This can empty a researcher’s payment reserves and produce meaningless data. For this reason, Dr O’Connor does not offer financial compensation for his online work. Instead, he says that he tries to “give people feedback on their performance so they go away with something, they learn something about their own performance as well as the standard debrief.”

Social media can prove useful to researchers as a means of recruiting more participants. Dr O’Connor explains that when he taught himself coding (to make more interesting online experiments), “the ability to have a button at the end which gives you the ability to share your result on Facebook was revelatory.” He added, “Suddenly you see groups of friends just going in on it and almost competing which is what you want and you want people to be doing their best for your research.”

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Progress in science is unpredictable. No one knows where the next discovery will come from or what it will look like. Yet, by participating in studies, students have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to our understanding of human behaviour. Who knows, perhaps the next sensationalist science piece you read online could feature a study that you have participated in.

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