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Student ‘super-subjects’ benefit while supporting research

Ceci Cerrilla ’16 and one of her friends wanted to make money without getting jobs. So when they saw an ad on a telephone poll requesting subjects for a study, it seemed like a good solution, she said.

Joseph Van Wye ’15 is also constantly on the lookout for research studies in which he can participate — he said he keeps a “little collection” of tabs he pulls off of flyers with contact information for various labs.

Cerrilla and Van Wye are Brown students who could be considered “super-subjects.”

Van Wye started participating in studies over the summer before his freshman year and estimates that since then he has made between $1,300 and $1,400. “You gotta pay off student loans somehow,” he said.

For some “super-subjects” like Cerrilla and Van Wye, lab participation is a good substitute to a full-time job, but for others, such as Julia Franckh ’15, lab participation is required for classes in related fields.

Experiments within the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences department and Brown University Social Science Experimental Laboratory are the two main opportunities that allow students to make money as subjects. CLPS studies generally offers students a fixed amount for participation, while the BUSSEL studies offer students a base participation amount and pay additional money based on their performance in the studies. For example, in studies where students are asked to answer a series of math questions, they are paid based on the number of questions they answer correctly. In other BUSSEL experiments, subjects’ pay is based on the success of decisions they and their fellow subjects make.

Eric Foreman ’15 said he once made $60 at BUSSEL. Other times he makes less, but the possibility of making more money if one performs well is certainly a good incentive, he said. The students who have participated in both BUSSEL research and CLPS research said they generally put more effort into BUSSEL studies because of this incentive. In contrast, they said, some of the CLPS studies can become boring, and there is a lack of incentive to try.

This decision was made consciously, said Associate Professor of Economics Pedro Dal Bo. He said the studies test economic theories and “better the theories and understanding of human behavior.” If the situations were merely hypothetical, the results would not be as reliable, he said. “If we didn’t pay people based on what they do, we wouldn’t be able to get good information.”

Fiery Cushman, assistant professor of CLPS, also said he feels students contribute a lot to the department’s research. “The truth is that without student participants, we wouldn’t get nearly as much psychological research done at Brown,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. The benefit of using students as research subjects is that they are “willing to participate, often for less money than other people, or often as part of a class assignment,” he added. He estimated his lab, which is just one of 30 in the CLPS department, tests up to 1,000 Brown students each year.

“Psychology is a ‘pay it forward’ enterprise,” Cushman wrote. “When students enroll in my course, they learn about all kinds of topics that we discovered by testing psychology undergraduates (often their parents and grandparents!). Those participants of yesteryear paid it forward, helping us to learn about the mind. So we ask students today to pay it forward, so that their kids will benefit from what we learn about them.”

Franckh, who is a cognitive science concentrator, has only participated in CLPS studies as part of course requirements or for extra credit, rather than monetary compensation. Franckh has acquired 11.5 total research credits for CLPS classes due to the large number in which she is enrolled. One credit is equivalent to about one hour of time, and certain classes, such as CLPS 0700: “Social Psychology,” require up to five credits of subject participation. She signs up for studies through the online SONA system where she is matched to studies for which she fits the requirements.

Franckh said this system is a good way for professors to support each other’s labs, because they are always looking for subjects to test and recruitment can be difficult.

As a frequent subject, Franckh said it can become difficult to find studies in which she has not already participated.

This is an issue other “super-subjects” have encountered. Some labs keep lists of those who are ineligible to participate due to past participation, as “it’s possible that people will change their approach to an experiment depending on what they’ve experienced before, and we have to look out for that,” Cushman wrote.

For students such as Foreman, who once participated in four studies in one week,  it can potentially be difficult to find new research experiments. On the other hand, “you can always make a new email address and use that,” he said.

For Franckh, being a subject has provided her great insight into her other work. She has been a part of the Causality and Mind Lab since her freshman year, where she began as a volunteer who recruited subjects and sent emails, and now conducts studies and tests subjects herself. Being a subject has taught her how to conduct experiments well, she said. “It is all about clarity and how to approach subjects. (You have to) explain the process and be open.” To be a good psychologist one must also understand what it is like to be a subject, she said.

Students such as Cerrilla, Foreman and Van Wye, who participate mainly as a way of making money, also recognize other benefits of having been lab subjects. Cerrilla and Foreman, who are both concentrating in biology, said being a subject has been informative about what opportunities are available and what is being done at Brown. At one study, Foreman was even offered the opportunity to join a lab, but he said he declined due to a lack of time in his schedule.

Foreman, Franckh and Van Wye said studies can also be interesting because of the information they receive. Getting MRI pictures of their brains or watching their brain activity through electroencephalography are unusual experiences. For Van Wye, long-term studies also offer a sense of accomplishment. He said he prefers doing studies such as those run by the Sleep for Science program because of the long-term commitment.

All of the “super-subjects” agreed that there is a certain level of satisfaction in participating in a study, whether it is walking away with cash, course credits or research knowledge.

“It’s always good to know you achieved well,” Van Wye said.