Psychophysics at home

Social distancing meets social psychology in Beth Richards’ project for her British Psychological Society Undergraduate Research Assistantship Award.

It’s 1 October 2020. I’m walking onto campus for the first time since the national lockdown, having hardly stepped out the house since April. I’m surrounded by familiar places and faces; however, it feels anything but normal. 

My natural instinct is to greet people with a warm hug – instead, I am abruptly stopping two metres away, settling for a wave and a smile. I’m bumping into people I haven’t seen for five months, recycling the same questions again and again:

“How are you?” 

“How was your lockdown?”

“Did you manage to go on holiday?”

“When do you think all this will be over?”

It all feels kind of… awkward. Having been deprived of contact with anyone outside my household for so long and having to follow social distancing guidelines, I find myself feeling slightly disorientated. 

Navigating this new social world where etiquette has totally changed has highlighted our dependence on conventional interactions. Hugs and handshakes are out the window and I’m unable to decipher people’s facial expressions from behind their masks. The absence of such non-verbal social cues leaves interactions feeling unfamiliar, strange. 

For people with atypical social perception and communication, the social world constantly feels overwhelming and difficult to navigate. This includes struggling to understand the non-verbal social cues that we take for granted each day. These individual differences in the way humans interact, and the mechanisms that underpin this, have always intrigued me. 

In my first year at the University of Birmingham, I endeavoured to gain a further insight into social perception. I managed to land a role as a research assistant at the Centre for Human Brain Health (CHBH) on campus. The project I work on is led by Professor Ole Jensen, investigating the perception of non-verbal social interactions.

My roles at the CHBH include participant recruitment through the subject pool at the University, data collection using magnetoencephalography (MEG) and data analysis.

For any first year Psychology students looking to pursue a career in research or clinical psychology, gaining clinical experience is essential. I would recommend always keeping an eye out for voluntary research assistant roles. After six months of voluntary work, I was promoted to a paid position. Hard work pays off! 

Being a research assistant sparked a passion to develop and lead my own research. In April 2020, with Dr Wieske van Zoest and Dr Ana Pesquita’s support, I applied for the British Psychological Society’s Undergraduate Research Assistantship Award. In May 2020, I was selected as one of the winners. 

The project

Receiving this esteemed award enabled me to design and implement my own research project at the CHBH – a rare opportunity for an undergraduate like myself. The project focused on investigating the attentional mechanisms behind social perception, building on my understanding of social interactions.

The first step of any project is the research question. What is it you want to find out? 

My research question was: Are the temporal properties of attention involved in face perception?

Let’s break this down. 

Visual processing of complex visual scenes demands information convergence (i.e. piecing together visual stimuli to form a whole). One theory of how this is achieved is by temporal coding mechanisms [1]

Essentially, this theory suggests that the brain creates a ‘to-do’ list, in which it systematically processes complex visual scenes based on incoming information (bottom-up processing) and previous experiences (top-down processing), to prevent information overload [1]

Moreover, it is thought that when processing the visual world, attention samples the visual information in rhythmic patterns [2].  

Based on these theories, we asked whether the temporal properties of attention sampling regulate the convergence of same-object information, and whether this is applicable to social stimuli, such as faces. 

Step 1: Experiment construction

Where to begin…

Having never designed an experiment from scratch, I had no idea where to start. 

Following the BeOnline 2020 online conference, a plethora of YouTube tutorials, and invaluable guidance from Dr Pesquita, I decided to use Gorilla to create my study (https://gorilla.sc/).

Gorilla is an online experiment builder that allowed me to design a well-controlled experiment from scratch, without requiring extensive coding knowledge. Having only just dipped my toe into the world of coding, this was perfect for me. 

Using Gorilla’s task builder, I was able to design the task and trial structure, specifying the trial content via a spreadsheet. The software enabled me to create interactive instructions, with text, images and audio. Having participated in numerous studies throughout my University experience, I knew that interactive instructions were imperative for capturing the attention of my participants from the offset.

As we were forced to move the study online, we were able to use Gorilla’s online eye-tracking software. This enabled us to track participants’ eye movements using their webcams – incredibly innovative and upcoming technology!

Additionally, the experiment builder allowed me to add counterbalancing and randomisation to my task, thus maintaining the validity of our results. 

Based on my experience, I would highly recommend Gorilla to any young, inexperienced researcher wanting to design an online behavioural experiment. 

Step 2: Participant recruitment

When I initially applied for the project, I did not anticipate that I would be conducting the project from my bedroom. Whilst this was an unexpected change to my plans, it meant I was able to develop new skills that I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to develop.

A major hurdle that Covid-19 brought to the project involved participant recruitment. Initially, we had planned to recruit in-person subjects from the participant pool at the University of Birmingham. Due to the lockdown, we had to adapt and try something different.

After attending the BeOnline 2020 online conference, and weighing up the pros and cons of different services, we plumped for the online recruitment platform, Prolific (https://app.prolific.co/).

To become familiar with the platform, I signed up as a participant. This entailed completing more than 150 screening questions. This rigorous screening process reassured me that participants on the platform would be committed to meaningfully completing the task. Any participants looking to cheat the system for cash would run a mile when faced with those questions! 

Completing a variety of experiments on Prolific also enabled me to learn from other researcher’s mistakes, evaluating what works and what does not. 

Moreover, when we began recruiting, the process was fast and simple. In just one afternoon we managed to collect our entire pilot dataset!

For any aspiring psychologists wanting to learn more about experimental methods (whilst earning some good cash), Prolific is a great opportunity to broaden your knowledge and contribute to the scientific community. 

Step 3: Data analysis

As I mentioned earlier, before beginning this project, I had only just begun to acquire skills in coding. Therefore, a personal goal for the internship was to become more proficient in R programming. 

Dr Pesquita was kind enough to coach me through some R training courses, meaning I was able to complete an Intermediate R course on DataCamp (https://www.datacamp.com/). 

This meant that when it came to analysing our data from the behavioural experiment, I was able to develop my own R code to make the process more efficient. 

Previously, I have only used SPSS for data analysis; therefore, I was proud to have learnt such a translatable skill that will equip me for future research projects. 

Step 4: Results

The results of our data analysis indicated several things.

Firstly, the initial results from our pilot study suggest that perceptual grouping may lead to higher detection accuracy and faster reaction times when human faces are grouped vs split. This offers preliminary support to the notion that temporal properties of attention might be involved in face processing. 

Secondly, we have demonstrated that it is possible to conduct a psychophysics experiment online with high temporal reliability and participant compliance – an important proof of concept as more experiments move online. 

Whilst the initial findings are promising, it is too early to suggest a conclusion. Dr Van Zoest and Dr Pesquita have agreed to continue working with me to further investigate, following the paradigm developed in this study. 

Step 5: Poster

Once we had analysed our data, the final step of the internship was to create a poster to be presented at the BPS Annual Conference 2021. This was useful, as the design process was extremely relevant to the academic poster that I will need to create for my dissertation project. 

Reflecting on the summer’s work reinforced my desire to lead my own research, spurring my motivation to apply for competitive post-graduate courses. Moreover, I am excited at the prospect of developing my communication skills when I present my poster at the conference next summer.  

Reflection

Working alongside the vast network of international researchers at the CHBH was incredibly valuable for my personal development as a researcher. As the experimental world moved online, I was able to learn from the experiences of well-established psychologists by joining weekly lab zoom meetings, where they would present their latest findings. Also, attending the BeOnline 2020 conference meant that I was well-informed and able to utilise innovative technology at the forefront of modern research. 

For any undergraduate Psychology students looking for a career in research, I cannot recommend the BPS Summer Assistantship enough. If no-one approaches you to take part, don’t worry! Take the initiative and ask members of the BPS at your University if they would be willing to support your application. 

I took a long shot and reached out to Dr Van Zoest and Dr Pesquita directly, asking if they would apply on my behalf. I never imagined that I would gain so much from just an 8-week programme. 

On top of this, I have expanded my network at the CHBH and beyond. During the project, I presented my project proposal to Dr Pesquita’s colleagues at the University of British Colombia in Canada, who reviewed my work and gave vital feedback – something I never dreamed was possible as an undergraduate. 

- By Beth Richards. 'I continue to work at the CHBH as a research assistant and hope to be accepted into post-graduate education following my final year at the University of Birmingham. Special thanks to Dr Van Zoest and Dr Pesquita for supporting my BPS Summer Assistantship application, as well as to Professor Ed Wilding (Head of Psychology) and Professor Ole Jensen (Head of the CHBH).'

- For more information on the BPS scheme, see https://www.bps.org.uk/about-us/awards-and-grants/society-grants/undergraduate-research-assistantship-scheme

References

[1] Jensen, O., Gips, B., Bergmann, T. O., & Bonnefond, M. (2014). Temporal coding organized by coupled alpha and gamma oscillations prioritize visual processing. Trends in Neurosciences, 37(7), 357-369. 

[2] Landau, A. N., & Fries, P. (2012). Attention samples stimuli rhythmically. Current Biology, 22(11), 1000-1004.

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