Cognitive research – coming to a smartphone near you

“Citizen science” projects have successfully gotten people to classify galaxy shapes, find optimal protein folding structures or decipher manuscripts. But is it possible to use online participation not just to harness users problem-solving abilities but for actual experiments and data gathering in cognitive research? There has been much furore recently about a study on the spread of emotion that used data not only gathered through Facebook without users’ consent, but for which users’ newsfeed was actively manipulated. In contrast, researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Birmingham now show that data for cognitive science experiments can be crowdsourced with informed consent, and results from the mass data collection replicate results which researchers got when they carried out experiments with the same aim in a carefully controlled lab setting.

The researchers got an app produced for smartphones, which allows users to play four short games that are based on classic experimental paradigms of cognitive science. These tested decision-making, short-term memory, perception and action inhibition but were packaged as competitive games. In one of them, users tapped their screen when fruit fell from a tree, but not when the fruit turned brown while falling. When the users tapped correctly and quickly enough, they progressed to the next level, where fruits turned brown later in their fall. Before playing, users filled out a questionnaire about themselves and gave informed consent for the use of their data. Interestingly, when analyzing the data, the researchers got the same results that other researchers got when they carried out experiments with the same goal in a lab setting, with only a few participants. One advantage of mass data collection over the internet is that the participants come from a wider demographic than the usual lab rats for cognitive science, cash-strapped university students. Soon, there will be two billion people using smartphones worldwide. That’s quite a wide pool of potential participants for online experiments, if done correctly. And, Facebook – no, informed consent is not optional.

Original research paper in PLOS One