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Students participate as test subjects in psychology studies

Published: Friday, December 7, 2012

Updated: Friday, December 7, 2012 00:12


Oliver Porter / The Tufts Daily

Tufts students contribute to the pool of participants for psychology research studies occurring in Tufts laboratories.


Forget guinea pigs and lab rats: Tufts students are often test subjects for psychology studies at the university themselves. While professors and students alike conduct extensive research on a diversity of subjects, students have the opportunity to participate in psychology studies to earn a few extra dollars or fulfill class requirements.

For the courses Introduction to Psychology (Psychology 1), Introduction to Cognitive and Brain Science (Psychology 9) and Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences (Psychology 31), students have the option of fulfilling a research requirement by either writing a research-based paper or participating in psychology studies.

According to Associate Professor of Psychology Sam Sommers, who also oversees the processes of signing up and receiving credit for studies for students in those three courses, most students opt to participate in the studies.

“These are courses that seek to introduce students to how research is conducted in the field of psychology,” Sommers said. “Reading about studies and hearing about them in class is great, but participating in studies also gives students first-hand experience with the research process and how scientific discovery works in psychology.”

A faculty member in the Department of Psychology supervises all of the studies, although they are typically administrated by either advanced undergraduate students or graduate students. Jeffrey Birk, a graduate student with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and music composition from Dartmouth College, is currently conducting research in the Emotion, Brain, & Behavior Laboratory at Tufts with Professor Heather Urry. His research looks at the relationship between emotional control and levels of anxiety.

“We’re trying to train attentional control, so basically train peoples’ ability to focus on a task and to ignore task-irrelevant information,” Birk said. “The two physiological measures of interest are expressive behavior measured in a facial frowning muscle in the forehead, as well as autonomic nervous system activity as measured by sweat gland activity at the fingertips.”

Birk said that participants often consider their lab unusual when they first spot the sensors. He continued to describe the procedures of the average experiment that students participate in.

“We do a variety of cognitive tasks on a computer with button pressing responses and responses to stimuli on-screen to measure various cognitive capacities, such as attentional control,” Birk said. “In my task, they complete sort of a slideshow task that involves viewing some images with text and music that are designed to elicit an emotional state, and so we look at how the performance on the cognitive test that preceded the slideshow predicts how they respond emotionally to the slideshow, and then there’s always some questionnaires, too.”

He stressed the importance of ensuring that the participants feel safe and comfortable. For this particular experiment, the pool of participants is almost entirely composed of students taking Psychology 1, as well as some in Psychology 31.

“Typically they come in, we go through the consent process to let them know everything’s confidential and if there’s any sensors that they don’t want to have attached to them or any tests that they don’t want to do, they don’t have to,” Birk said.

To prevent any controversial situations and ensure participant safety, all of the research conducted at Tufts is subject to the oversight of the Tufts Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB oversees the ethics of every study and ensures that the rights and safety of all participants are being looked after.

Senior Madeline Luce chose to participate in psychology studies to complete the research component of Psychology 1.

“I signed up online for specific studies and time slots, and then showed up at the assigned time,” Luce said. “The person in charge of the study would give me a release form to sign, and then I would do the study. They typically took anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.”

In addition to Tufts psychology students, the Department of Psychology also recruits community volunteers to supplement their studies. Sarah Gaither, a graduate student who is working to earn her masters and Ph.D in social psychology, is primarily researching interracial relations and perceptions of ingroup and outgroup members, as well as various types of racial perceptions and the use of stereotypes and prejudice. Her research studies include many participants from outside of the university.

“We have the people from the different psychology courses...[beyond that] the other participants we’re recruiting are actually community samples, so we have paid participants this semester as well, some from either the Tufts community or the general Boston area,” Gaither said. “Right now we’re actually recruiting mono-racial black and biracial black/white participants, so they’re all-out paid participants right now this semester.”

Students participating in psychology studies to fulfill their research requirement for class do not get paid, while other students and non-Tufts participants receive compensation. Experiments typically offer rates of $10 to $20 an hour, according to Sommers.

Gaither emphasized the importance of having access to students for her research.

“Without the subject pool at Tufts, I wouldn’t be nearly as productive of a researcher, so it’s a huge tool for people in psychological research to be able to have this option to collect data. I don’t have a ton of research money, so I can’t afford to pay everyone,” Gaither said. “By having a subject pool, it allows us to collect more data more quickly.”

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