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Help Science, Get Paid

Mar 08, 2013

I was a human guinea pig at Booth's Chicago Research Lab. 

I climbed into a driving simulator ten stories above noontime traffic in a Chicago Loop high rise. A disembodied voice instructed me to put the car into drive, and I pulled out onto a highway. Then I crashed. Then I crashed again. I was one of many people who had done this, I was assured. And they all collected $10 and headed back to work.

I did this in the name of science. Some people do it in the name of extra cash, and other people do it because it’s fun. What they do is roll dice, play cards, and watch videos as human guinea pigs for Chicago Booth’s Center for Decision Research.

The Center for Decision Research, or CDR, was established in 1977 by Hillel Einhorn, then a professor of behavioral science, who had the idea to organize behavioral science research around the study of decision making. The CDR instantly inspired similar academic centers at MIT, Wharton, and Carnegie-Mellon, and began to develop an international reputation for its work. By 1985, it had more than 2,000 researchers asking for reprints of the papers published by its seven members. Tragically, Einhorn died young in 1987, and the center lost its champion.

Eight years later, Richard Thaler, now the Ralph and Dorothy Keller Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics, arrived at Booth. At that time the CDR had one tenured faculty member and a mixed reputation among the rest, according to Thaler. He made it his goal to create “the first really world-class psychology department in a business school,” he says.

Now that the CDR has been around for more than three decades, it is “the infrastructure that allows these psychologists to work,” Thaler says. Most economists assume that everyone in the marketplace acts rationally. Behavioral economists ask what happens when that assumption is relaxed to accommodate human nature. “Decision-making is studied in much the same way as anything is studied at Chicago,” he says. “Observe a phenomenon, build a mathematical model, and test it against the real world.”

The CDR now comprises 16 tenured or tenure-track faculty members, four postdoctoral fellows, and 18 doctoral candidates. They are engaged in research in a broad range of themes, from social cognition to magical thinking.

The CDR conducts research in three locations, each of which tries to attract members of the public to submit to experiments that range from a few minutes to several weeks of appointments. The Decision Research Lab in Harper Center primarily attracts University of Chicago undergraduates. Finding willing test subjects is not always easy within the relatively small university community, according to Thaler. “At larger universities, students in Psych 101 are required to participate in experiments for class credit,” he says. “Here, they’re not.” Flyers are posted around the Hyde Park campus, advertising: “Help Science. Get Paid.”

Researchers also gather data from good natured-visitors at the Museum of Science and Industry on Chicago’s South Side. On a recent weekend, CDR researchers had set up a table steps from the main hall and offered candies to anyone willing to answer a few questions about gift cards. They also recorded data about which candies participants chose as compensation.

The Chicago Research Lab, where I got paid to wreck a virtual car, was established by a grant that has allowed the CDR to attract office workers and others in the Loop. On a recent day in that lab, a group of subjects gathered to talk about what makes them repeat visitors. Some cited the suspense of not knowing more about the tests they subject themselves to—when research is in progress, investigators don’t tell participants what the study is about. Others recalled being paid to taste and describe cookies. Perhaps it is more obvious why those people returned.

Not all the studies are as tasty, or fun. One study required that subjects watch video footage of puppy mills—and a few people walked out of the room rather than complete the test. But most people stayed, and many have kept coming back. “The challenge is part of the fun,” says one of the regulars.

The driving simulator, lent to the CDR by General Motors, is kept in a room near the entrance of the downtown lab. It’s where Nick Epley, John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science, has been collecting data on how people react to machines that have been given human characteristics. He has found that when people are prompted to anthropomorphize the computer in the driving simulator by listening to its “voice,” they are less likely to blame the computer in the case of a crash.

For Epley, lab results often become class discussions. “I gave a lecture last week on mind reading,” he said. “When students ask questions about the material, I’m talking about research we did the week before.” Research could be doing for science, or cash.—Chelsea Vail