Associate Professor of Psychology and Peidatrics Daniel Messinger, Ph.D., is conducting a study on facial expressions in infants at risk for autism.
However, instead of yielding research solely gathered from experts, he and his colleagues are also using non-expert students, a new trend in psychology research.
So far, 188 University of Miami students, mostly those enrolled in Psychology 110 (introduction to psychology), have participated in the research. The students are rewarded for their contribution to the autism study, whether through research credit for PSY110 or with small monetary compensation if they are not a psychology student.
In the study, the non-expert students were shown a video of parents playing with their infants. The parent in the video would play with the infant for three minutes and then remain still and emotionless for two minutes.
The role of the students was to measure the positive and negative changes in the facial expressions of the infants, which the researchers then assessed with the use of a joystick.
“What we found was when we asked [the parents] not to play with the babies, the babies at high risk for autism showed a rating as being less positive than those who had no risk for autism,” Messinger said.
According to Messinger, the difference in the ratings done by the students and the ratings done by the experts is very subtle. The use of non-experts simplifies the search for people who would be able to assign ratings, which is typically an incredibly arduous task for scientists.
Potential experts would then have to go through several-hundred pages of a training manual before being able to view the video. However, the availability of non-experts means that the lengthy scientific orientation would not be a factor.
“I think it’s a great way to involve students in scientific research, and so far their findings have been very useful,” he said.
Danielle Norona, a graduate student in education and a psychology research assistant, said that she participated in the non-expert student autism study because she wanted to get more involved with research during her senior year.
“In some of the other studies for my [psychology research] credit, they were testing on you,” she said. “This was different because you actually got to have a hands-on experience and learn something instead of being a test subject.”
Both the experts, like Messinger, and the non-experts, like Norona, agreed that data gathered from the perspective of the average person is a very valuable asset to psychology research on humans.
“It gives you an insight into what the general person might be thinking,” Norona said. “With the parents, most don’t have a Ph.D. in psychology, so it’s important to know how they perceive emotions in general, whether or not their perceptions are accurate.”
Whitney Mattson, a graduate research assistant with Messinger, is not worried about whether or not this study will be met with doubt by critics.
“There’s a fairly long history of using undergrads in research,” she said. “I think the initial tendency is to be skeptical because there are so many measures that we take in psychology that require a lot of training by expert researchers, but as studies like this get more attention, I think that we may see that it becomes more of a trend in psychology research.”
The study has been published in the “International Journal of Behavioral Development,” and is also available on sciencedaily.com, an online scientific journal.
“I didn’t even know that it was there until a student told me,” Messinger said.
The psychology department plans to continue to use non-expert students in future research studies.
Messinger and Mattson agree that there are potential disadvantages to using non-experts, such as not paying adequate attention while participating in a study, but both believe that overall the students have been a valuable asset to the autism research study.
Click this link to view the findings of the study in the International Journal for Behavioral Development: http://jbd.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/34/1/88
Meredith Reilly may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.