For the 2014 meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association, I was asked to organize a session on teaching technologies. Turning to some of my most esteemed colleagues in the field, I asked Ithaca College’s Barney Beins, Monmouth University’s Gary Lewandowski, and Seton Hall’s Susan Nolan to share the podium, and their thoughts, on “the good, the bad, and the some of both” when it comes to incorporating technology into the classroom. In addition to providing thoughtful observations, they each shared their slides with me, allowing me a peek into a whole new world of online psychology resources. With their permission, I’m sharing some of these sites with you, along with comments about what makes them particularly useful.
Psychological Research on the Net
Want to find out what it’s like to be in a psychology study? Interested in gaining hands-on experience to see what psychologists do? This site, organized by John H. Krantz of Hanover College, provides several hundred (and counting) opportunities to volunteer as a research participant in studies ranging from attitudes toward romantic partners to (appropriately enough) technology and anxiety. One study currently on the site assesses the impact of the Disney Princess brand on attitudes and believes in young adults and another studies the science of attraction. Each study contains its own consent form and is organized by its own research team. Whether you want to spend 20 minutes or 2 hours on the site is up to you, depending on your interests and your desire to contribute to the knowledge base in the field.
One great feature of this site is the fact that the researchers represented here come from all over the world. Even if you thought you knew about psychology research from your own experience of being a participant, you may only truly know about the field from your particular country’s point of view. Exposing yourself to an international perspective on psychology research can vastly expand your horizons.
Teachers can also use this site to give high school or college psychology students a first-person introduction to research methods. If everyone in a class (or group) participates in the same experiment, you can swap observations about the study’s apparent strengths and limitations. Since some of the studies are more refined than others, this could prove to be an interesting critical thinking task.
Whatever your reason for giving this site a whirl, you’ll find it provides you with a new way of looking at the field of psychology. We often read about psychology research, but rarely have the chance to take part in it ourselves. After a few visits to this website, you may never think about the field the same way again.
Online Psychology Laboratory
The next best thing to being in a real psychology laboratory, this online version offers some pretty intriguing possibilities. If you’d like to have a Psych Geek night out, it’s the perfect party game.
If you’re teaching a class in psychology and would like to give your students the opportunity to see, free of charge, how a psychology phenomenon works, you can set up an online experiment on this APA-hosted site. The submission rules clearly state that each potential entry will be reviewed, guaranteeing that no one will harm anyone or be harmed on the site. Also, the entry must be web-ready, meaning that you must ensure that the experiment runs on its own.
Even if you’re not in a class, you can still enjoy the fun offered by this site of seeing what psychology research is about- and getting feedback. You just have to state that you’re not in a class, and then provide your age and gender (to add data to the pool). For example, I completed the experiment on the Ponzo (or “train-track”) illusion and was able to learn just how fooled I was by this brain teaser. The site gave me specific information on how I scored and why I scored the way I did.
Amazon Mechanical Turk
If party games aren’t your thing, but making money is, then you can translate your love of psychology into currency by joining this crowd-sourcing site’s army of participants. You complete “Human Intelligence Tasks” (or HITs) which allow you to earn money for each study in which you participate. The payoff per HIT isn’t necessarily all that much, but if you have a few hours in which you were only going to be playing videogames, you can use that time profitably while learning about psychology research.
Increasingly, researchers are using Mechanical Turk as a way to gather data from a wider range of participants than they may have at their disposal through their home institution. Also, since they’re paying their participants, they don’t have to rely on volunteers or students gaining extra credit for their courses. This means that it’s possible to obtain a sample of people of wider age ranges, social classes, races and ethnicities, and nationalities. The only drawback is that because people are getting paid, they may cut corners and try to get through the studies as quickly as possible.
Even if you’re just a casual user of Mechanical Turk, you can still gain some valuable insights into the field by being part of one or two studies of your choosing. By participating in Mechanical Turk, you’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that you may be one of the “N’s” in someone’s published journal article.
Correlation or Causation?
Let’s move from research participant to consumer. Jon Mueller, of Illinois North Central College, put together what is arguably the funniest psychology research website that’s out there. To understand its premise you have to be familiar with the phrase “correlation is not causation,” the mantra uttered by every psych major in the world. Because there is only so much experimental manipulation we can perform in psychology research (we can’t assign people to gender, personality type, or age, for example), the field relies heavily on correlational studies in which relationships are observed between variables. Consequently, much of what we conclude based on psychological data must be qualified by stating that causality cannot be inferred.
Despite this proviso, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself when you’re excited about a study’s finding (your own, especially), and make claims that you shouldn’t about what caused what. Journalists, whether former psych majors or not, often commit this error. The website contains both headlines of articles that made it to the popular press as well as thought experiments you can conduct to test your own susceptibility to this logical failing.
Just by virtue of being on this website, it would be clear when a study’s headlines commit the correlation-causation sin (e.g. “Why You Should Talk to Your Baby”). However, you might not be so skeptical if you saw the headline in your personal news feed. As it turns out, in the case of this study, kids did better if their parents talked to them, but the parents who talked to their kids more often tended to be better educated. Therefore, the parents themselves might have been smarter, and their children correspondingly might have inherited stronger language skills. You can see, then, the conundrum.
I have definitely saved the best for last. With this handy Google tool, you can create your own “correlation does not equal causation” experiments, but with words instead of data. Typing in the word “psychologist” using “compare U.S. states” produces significant correlations with “snuka” (.8190), all the way down to “till the world ends” (.7394). In other words, people who searched for “psychologist” also searched for these seemingly more random terms. The map by states also shows where these searches were more prominent. People who searched for “therapist” also searched for “bass drum” (.7470) but also for “something good” (.7458).
Anyway, you get the point. By tracking people’s search patterns, Google engineers have mined their own data to give you the opportunity not only to come up with your own mad libs types of correlations, but to speculate as to why certain searches might be related.
In summary, there is a lot of good out there but we all must keep certain cautions in mind. Technology for the sake of technology has its limitations. As Dr. Lewandowski pointed out, we don’t yet know if our heavy investments in laptops and tablets for students will pay off, especially if basic teaching suffers as a result. However, there are worthwhile lessons, and fun, to be gained by taking your own trip through psychology’s more interactive and informative websites. Enjoy!
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014