Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Steve Jobs' gift to cognitive science

The ubiquity of iPhones, iPads and other miniature computers promises to revolutionise research in cognitive science, helping to overcome the discipline's over-dependence on testing Western, educated participants in lab settings.

That's according to an international team of psychologists who say the devices allow for experimentation on an unprecedented scale. "The use of smartphones allows us to dramatically increase the amount of data collected without sacrificing precision," say Stephane Dufau and his colleagues, "and thus has the potential to uncover laws of mind that have previously been hidden in the noise of small-scale experiments." In contrast, they argue that conducting cognitive psychology experiments over the internet has not been a great success because of problems obtaining the necessary precision of timing.

To illustrate their point, the researchers developed an iPhone/iPad App that replicates the classic "lexical decision task" used by psychologists to study the sub-second mental processes involved in reading. Participants are presented with a series of letter strings and simply have to indicate as quickly as possible whether each one is a real word or not. The App was launched as a seven-language international effort in December 2010 and after just four months data had been collected from over four thousand participants. By way of comparison, it took more than three years to collect a similar amount of data via conventional means. It will be easy to add further languages to the App, including non-Romanic alphabet languages like Chinese.

The free Science XL App presents the task to users as a test of word power and offers a choice of task lengths from two to six minutes. Once enrolled, participants use Yes/No buttons on the touch-screen display to indicate whether the letter strings that appear are real words or not. Each participant's performance stats are presented at the end and they are given the option of forwarding their results to the researchers via email. Extreme negative outliers were excluded from further analysis. There is the obvious issue of participants choosing to only send in favourable performance data. However, this doesn't spoil the ability to examine the effect of different factors on performance. For example, the data collected via the App matched many known features of lexical decision time data: reaction times were quicker for more common words and mean reaction times correlated with data collected in psychology labs.

Using smartphones "has wide multidisciplinary applications in areas as diverse as economics, social and affective neuroscience, linguistics, and experimental philosophy," say Dufau and his collaborators. "Finally it becomes possible to reliably collect culturally diverse data on a vast scale, permitting direct tests of the universality of cognitive theories."

This isn't the first time that psychology researchers have aired their excitement about the potential of mobile technologies to revolutionise their methods. A 2009 study used mobile phones to monitor participants' social movements and phone calls.

ResearchBlogging.orgDufau, S., Duñabeitia, J., Moret-Tatay, C., McGonigal, A., Peeters, D., Alario, F., Balota, D., Brysbaert, M., Carreiras, M., Ferrand, L., Ktori, M., Perea, M., Rastle, K., Sasburg, O., Yap, M., Ziegler, J., and Grainger, J. (2011). Smart Phone, Smart Science: How the Use of Smartphones Can Revolutionize Research in Cognitive Science. PLoS ONE, 6 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0024974

-Thanks to Marc Brysbaert for the tip-off.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget the smartphone brain scanner!

Anonymous said...

What does an Iphone App add to an experiment that could be done on any computer?? I don't get how you can say that this increased availability of data is related to the Iphone!

Alecco Locco said...

Steve Jobs did not invent smartphones.

I'm a bit dissapointed this (otherwise great) blog falls into the cacophony of Jobs praise online.

mspape said...

Agreed with above comments. In fact, A LOT of online experiments (most of them without iphones) have been done using flash which, i think, still doesn't run on iphones and ipads. For instance, this really nice paper was in fact, published here:

Flashy gift to cognitive science?

Anonymous said...

Technical comment.
Many large-scale experiments are done on computers connected to internet, when there is no need for millisecond precision (display and response times). Keyboard or mouse micro-controllers used for responses, and USB sampling rate, are both at 125 Hz. Can not know within this 8+8 milliseconds when the response was made. And LCD displays are really poor.
With or without flash.

Neuroskeptic said...

I suspect that Flash is better for "formal" experiments, where people know they're taking part in an experiment.

It's just easier to say "Got to and follow the instructions" than "Get out your iPhone (or buy one), download this App, do X Y Z with it"

But maybe apps could be better for experiments disguised as games.

Unknown said...

Thanks for all your comments. I think for cog sci experiments that require sub-second precision timing, the main advantages of iPad/iPhones is:

>the ubiquity of the hardware means that participants all over the world are using the same devices, allowing standardisation of methodology - e.g. screen size. By contrast, experiments delivered over the internet on computers can suffer from heterogeneity of connection speed, monitor size, processor speed, other apps running in the background, browser differences etc

>Related to that, because Apps are downloaded and can often run without an internet connection, again it is possible to ensure standardisation and control of experimental timings, without the worry of page-download speeds and browser software etc varying for different participants.

>Yes, many smartphones and pocket computers can run Apps too, but a key point about Apple products is their ubiquity which helps with the standardisation point above. That's an important aspect of Steve Jobs' gift - the market dominance of the products is a boon for researchers looking for standardisation.

>Finally: why did we highlight the role of Jobs in this blog posting? Well, the study in question did actually use Apple products and the Apple App store (but not other smartphones). So certainly in the context of this paper it seems fair to flag up the role of Apple and Jobs.

Anonymous said...

@Alecco Locco He didn't but he did create the ecosystem that is the App store. Allowing millions of people access to a whole library of apps. This let's developers (in this case Psychologists) have an easy gateway to millions of participants in a standardised setting. Perfect for experiments.

Those who disagree, probably have never used or own such a device.

Anonymous said...

Fair points, thanks for clarifying! When you put it in these terms, I do agree that the Iphone allows greater standardisation.

Rahul said...

Mr.Steve, You have become an unforgettable icon for the world. You will be a role model for all budding inventors in the future.
I pray that your soul rests in peace.

Jobs in Bangalore said...

You will be a role model for all budding inventors in the future.
I pray that your soul rests in peace.

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