How behavioral scientists transformed their lab for remote research

With in-person labs closed, Chicago Booth scholars conduct studies via Zoom

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted one of the University of Chicago’s primary missions: the advancement of scientific knowledge.

When nonessential spaces closed in March to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, that included the labs of scientists who work in close proximity to real people—including those at Chicago Booth’s Center for Decision Research, which examines how social interactions shape human behavior.

“I feared it was the end of productive research as we know it in the CDR,” said Prof. Nicholas Epley, the faculty director for the center. “I could not have been more wrong.”

Despite his initial concerns, Epley has been “amazed” at the CDR’s successful transformation of its lab operations, the PIMCO Decision Research Laboratories, from a traditional lab into a virtual laboratory space. After four months, the lab has conducted virtual studies with more than 2,500 unique participants, completing 16,000 study sessions.

In an average week, the virtual lab engages three times more participants than the in-person labs did a year ago—maintaining the same high standards for data quality while studying topics such as the power of compliments, partisan divides, remote learning and social media.

Founded in 1977, the Center for Decision Research produces world-class behavioral science insights that shape public policy and are regularly featured in leading academic journals and popular press. The engine that drives this innovative scholarship is the center’s PIMCO Decision Research Laboratories, a behavioral science research unit that engages students and community members in interactive experiments. Traditionally, this research has been conducted in-person at a lab on UChicago’s Hyde Park campus, as well as via pop-up labs at museums, parks, cafes and other public spaces throughout the Chicago area.

Many of the CDR’s faculty study social interaction—expressing gratitude, interacting with strangers, random acts of kindness—so studies often involve participants connecting with one another in close quarters. However, the coronavirus presented a new challenge: How could the lab safely conduct its distinctive interactive studies in the era of social distancing?

“Everyone leapt to meet the challenge,” said Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at the Booth School of Business. “Our staff worked relentlessly to develop new skills and solve completely new problems. Their teamwork and cooperation could be used as a case study in some of our management classes. Our researchers have been really creative in adapting their experiments to this new environment, allowing testing of the same hypotheses—and in some cases even enabling testing of new hypotheses that would have been hard to do in our traditional laboratory environment.”

To ensure the safety of research participants and staff, the CDR suspended in-person lab operations in early March.

“Our labs team began channeling their creative energy towards designing a mechanism through which we could continue conducting leading-edge behavioral science research,” said Becky White, who led the online transition as the CDR’s director of lab operations. “We wouldn’t be satisfied with simply distributing links to surveys for participants to complete, and instead immediately began experimenting with how we might be able to conduct highly engaging and interactive studies online—using the same types of research designs we would typically conduct in-person, but through the Zoom web conferencing platform.”

Moving the lab online involved several hurdles, including the logistics of compensating online participants and ensuring data quality in the virtual space. But the largest challenge was adopting Zoom—a platform not intended for research—to recruit participants and run studies that normally require real-time interpersonal interactions.

In early April, just four weeks after pausing in-person operations, the CDR launched the PIMCO Decision Research Virtual Lab. While several research institutions use online surveys, the CDR is the first behavioral science lab in the country to conduct empirical, interactive studies using Zoom. This allows the CDR to serve the research interests of its faculty and students, while creating a sense of community and connection between participants.

Though the transition to an online environment required creative problem-solving, the Virtual Lab offers several advantages over a traditional lab space. Taking studies online can also be more convenient for participants—eliminating commute times, parking headaches and transit costs—and can even engage a global participant pool. Many of the studies are available on-demand, allowing users to complete studies on their own schedule.

“Much of my own research involves having people engage in direct conversation,” said Epley, whose work focuses on social cognition and why people misunderstand each other. “This has proven even easier to do through our virtual environment than it had been before, because it’s easier to bring people together at the same time. I couldn’t be happier with how this has gone.”

Because of these advantages, the Virtual Lab quickly outpaced the number of participants and studies of its physical locations. Since launching, the Virtual Lab is averaging more than 600 participants per week. During this same period last year, just 175 participants visited the physical labs in an average week.

To-date, thousands of participants have completed the prerequisites required to take studies, and the community is growing rapidly.

“The CDR labs team improvised like jazz musicians,” said Amy Boonstra, the center’s executive director. “They pioneered new behavioral science practices in uncharted territory and swiftly built a virtual infrastructure to collect high-quality data in unconventional ways with a strong collaborative spirit.”

The Virtual Lab will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. The CDR plans to re-open its Hyde Park and Pop-Up Labs as soon as it is safe to do so, operating alongside the Virtual Lab.

A version of this story was first published by the Center for Decision Research. To learn more about participating in paid research, visit the Virtual Lab web page.