Behavioral science is somewhat of an oxymoron – the attempt to make scientific determinations about something – human behavior – that is inherently malleable, and open to manipulation by choice and circumstance. When Joe Henrich flung the WEIRD bias into focus he highlighted an indisputable fact about behavioral research; that it is in fact primarily based on western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic populations. The numbers vary across fields, but some suggest within psychology 96% of research involves WEIRD participants, with psychology undergraduates the only participants in 67% of U.S. studies and 80% of studies in other countries.
The reality is, research isn’t easy. Researchers face the “publish or perish” dilemma, along with a constant struggle to find funding and the stress of securing tenure, so designing the optimal experiment, from a diversity of participants perspective, is almost an unrealistic expectation. Add to this the temptation of easily accessible students needing course credits and it’s not hard to see why this phenomenon exists.
Of course, a lot of research does canvas people from the general population, but the institutional barriers of it often create yet another ‘unnatural’ selection process. Take developmental psychology for example: you’re running a research project on infants and you need parents to bring their babies to your lab. Most likely it will be located in a metropolitan center, will be open between 9-5 Monday to Friday, and participating will take several hours out of the parent’s day. Already working families in outlying suburbs who can’t afford to sacrifice that time are excluded and those who can attend are more likely to be within a particular demographic or of a similar socioeconomic status.
If your people can’t come to the lab, take your lab to the people. The world is now more connected than ever and thanks to technological advances it’s becoming increasingly easy to get portable research grade equipment. Scientists at Cornell have a mobile communication lab designed to help make their social science experiments more inclusive. Equipped with eye trackers, they recently took it down to the farmer’s markets on Staten Island to ask locals what they thought of air pollution. This approach gave them a diverse pool of participants who would otherwise be much less likely to find their way into a university many miles away.
A similar approach was taken by associate professor of psychology Dr. Tanya Broesch who took eye trackers to Vanuatu to study and compare the ways babies and caregivers communicate in this community. A large portion of her research is dedicated to examining theories relating to psychology, anthropology, and education to determine whether they’re Western-biased or if they can be applied to other contexts. Of the participants in her study, nearly half had rejected colonization on their island which delivered a useful forum for looking at socialization goals and developmental outcomes in people from contrasting contexts. For obvious reasons this type of research would not be possible in a lab on a foreign continent.
Being able to take your equipment outside or to remote locations isn’t possible with all methods or technologies, but it is becoming easier. A lot of behavioral research is conducted using tools such as eye tracking, and these devices are becoming increasingly portable. Tobii Pro just launched Tobii Pro Fusion which is a lightweight, high-performance eye tracker that can easily be put in a back pack and then attached to a laptop in the field, allowing you to run lab standard experiments anywhere that you can bring the computer. This makes it possible to not only expand the participants in your study, but also expand the scope of your research. This new generation of eye tracking hardware does not require an external processing unit – making the whole setup more portable.
New discoveries hinge not only on expanding the pool of research subjects, but also the research question being examined. As more options become available to scientists it’s exciting to think of the possibilities for new discoveries about our world and its people.
Ready to reach further with your research? Head over to the Tobii Pro Learning Center that is packed with information on everything from step by step guide on how to set up an eye tracking study, upcoming courses to white papers on how to get the most out of your research tools.