Behavioral studies in era of COVID-19 raise new concerns about diversity

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | May 26, 2020

Story image

"The digital divide is undoubtedly going to get worse during this pandemic," says Emory psychologist Stella Lourenco. "This is a huge problem for ensuring equal access to education and to work, not just for ensuring diversity in scientific research."

PrintPrint

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating an ongoing trend in cognitive psychology to conduct human behavioral experiments online.

“The world has been growing increasingly digital for a while,” says Stella Lourenco, a developmental psychologist at Emory University. “The global pandemic has turbo charged the move towards virtual connection in most areas of life, including psychology research.”

While the Internet offers a powerful tool for collecting data during a time of social distancing, it also raises new concerns regarding the diversity of study participants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences published an opinion piece outlining these concerns, authored by Lourenco and Arber Tasimi, a developmental psychologist at Stanford University who will be joining the Emory faculty in August.

The authors warn that as more research moves online, a growing lack of Internet access among low-income and minority communities may reduce the diversity of study samples, which would limit the ability to generalize scientific findings. As unemployment soars, more people may be forced to choose between paying their rent and buying food or paying for Internet service.

“The digital divide is undoubtedly going to get worse during this pandemic,” Lourenco says. “This is a huge problem for ensuring equal access to education and to work, not just for ensuring diversity in scientific research.”

In their opinion piece, Lourenco and Tasimi urge scientists and grant-funding agencies to join lobbying efforts for government subsidies for Internet service, and “perhaps even advocate for universal availability of Internet access, which is essential for living and operating in contemporary times.”

In some ways, the challenges to diversity presented by the pandemic are a new twist on an old problem, Lourenco says. In recent years, concerns were raised that participants in some in-person psychology studies were mainly college students who are younger than the general population and also tend to be better educated and from higher-income backgrounds and industrialized countries.

A move towards online experiments of human subjects, using crowdsourcing tools such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, was helping alleviate this problem. Online experiments can allow researchers to tap large numbers of participants in an efficient and cost-effective way. “With crowdsourcing tools, you can potentially reach adults from all over the United States, and in other countries, as long as they have Internet access,” Lourenco says.

Children present unique research challenges, Lourenco says, so studies involving them have remained largely in-person. For instance, children tend to grow restless more quickly than adults when they are asked to sit in front of a computer to perform tasks for experiments.

The pandemic, however, is driving more child development laboratories to go online for the first time, Lourenco notes. Platforms such as the Parent and Researcher Collaborative, an online crowdsourcing tool where labs can post studies for families to participate in, are providing infrastructure to support this trend.

As more studies go online, the pandemic is likely impacting Internet access among some groups. In the pre-pandemic era, even low-income people without home Internet might be able to visit a library, a coffee shop or even the parking lot of a restaurant with free wireless service to connect to high-speed Internet. The current situation makes those scenarios less likely to occur.

And the current situation may represent the start of “a new normal,” Lourenco and Tasimi write, “in which threats of disease may require long-term social distancing practices and may differentially impact those in low-income and minority communities.”

They recommend that researchers strive to provide temporary Internet connection to low-income participants, by purchasing mobile hotspots that could be mailed to them or dropped off at their homes. They also recommend that more scientific journals require authors to report detailed demographic information of study participants, whether the studies are conducted online or in person.

They further recommend considering the development of more mobile laboratories, equipped with personal protective equipment and disinfection protocols. Portable labs would allow off-site testing to reach participants in low-income and minority communities.

“I hope that the pressure that the pandemic puts on behavioral research will ultimately create positive changes in the field,” Lourenco says. “Ultimately, it highlights the need to become more sensitive about the demographics of participants involved in psychological studies and about any claims that are made about the generalization of data.”