Monday, 11 February 2013

Experimental subjects are not different

Recently Pablo Brañas-Garza, from economics here at Middlesex, has published a paper in Nature Scientific Reports entitled Experimental Subjects Are Not Different.  I retained the use of subjects in the title for this entry because the paper is about economic games under experimental conditions where participants are indeed subjected to constraints and one another's strategic moves.  To my mind these notions often get squeezed out by imposed social norms around labelling.

Here is the abstract:

Experiments using economic games are becoming a major source for the study of human social behavior. These experiments are usually conducted with university students who voluntarily choose to participate. Across the natural and social sciences, there is some concern about how this “particular” subject pool may systematically produce biased results. Focusing on social preferences, this study employs data from a survey experiment conducted with a representative sample of a city’s population (N=765). We report behavioral data from five experimental decisions in three canonical games: dictator, ultimatum and trust games. The dataset includes students and non-students as well as volunteers and nonvolunteers. We separately examine the effects of being a student and being a volunteer on behavior, which allows a ceteris paribus comparison between self-selected students (students*volunteers) and the representative population. Our results suggest that self-selected students are an appropriate subject pool for the study of social behavior.

This is an interesting result as it opens up a wealth of possibilities for those of us in Psychology who are interested in cooperation and its dynamics. Experimental games can be expensive to run, and therefore can require good funding, but this is not always the case and as you will see this paper has a way of offsetting some of the costs.  And, of course, cash is not the only utility to distribute or maximize.  So, there is much to think about here.

Pablo's other papers are well worth a look.

Tom Dickins

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