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Is the Internet suitable for psychological research?

By Kilian Semmelmann (25.11.2014)

Being one of the most influential technologies of mankind, the Internet continues to grow at an overwhelming pace. New technologies, new areas of application, easier accessibility - all these factors lead to an astonishing 2.4 billion Internet users in 2012. The Internet community consists of people from all different countries, social backgrounds, languages and ages. When considered from an experimenter's point-of-view, one could say that the Internet is the biggest, most diverse subject pool in existence. This alluring mass of potential study participants led scientists from sociology, economics and psychology away from simply conducting their surveys in a lab-based paper-and-pencil manner to the use of the web as a platform. Most of the questionnaires used in today's research are published, filled out and even analyzed online. The advantages for conducting experiments online are numerous, for science and society:

The large number and greater diversity of participants allows us to look at the possible influence of population factors like age, sex or culture more easily and with more statistical power than typical lab-based small-scale studies. It also enables us to generalize obtained results to a larger extent than typical University-based studies, whose sample is usually strongly biased towards students. Additionally, we gain access to hard-to-reach subject pools (e.g., people with autism, social phobia). Online experiments avoid the potential influence of the presence and behavior of experimenters, thereby automatically creating a double-blind situation during data collection. In summary, online experiments enable us to address new large-scale research questions of high societal importance in a fast and very low priced manner.

While online questionnaires have certainly pushed forward the fields of sociology and economics, psychological research is more than questionnaires. Much of the work done in experimental psychology relies on recording the actual behavior of people – their reactions to sensory input, their thoughts and decisions, and their actions. Unfortunately, up to now there have been few attempts to use the Internet as a tool for conducting scientific research in the area of behavioral psychology, none of which investigated the general usability of the web. My dissertation aims to provide evidence that the Internet can be used as a complement or even substitute to classical in-lab methods and therefore focuses on critical performance measures like presentation times and the recording of reaction times that require a very high accuracy of the underlying experimental platform. Overall, we aim to find out if the Internet is a worthy addition to the tools of scientists, and to what extent it can be compared to today's gold standards of research. To address this research question, we will take a three-step approach:

First, we will select three to five very robust, reliable and important psychological paradigms (e.g. Stroop Effect, Visual Search, Posner's Cueing Paradigm) and replicate them in a classical in-lab environment. This will give us an empirically obtained baseline, corresponding to a common in-lab measurement how it is done in thousands of labs over the world. Second, we will again test people in the lab environment, but this time we will use a web-based application that resembles the in-lab program as closely as possible, but uses different programming languages and presentation applications. Using the second step, we can detect any influences of the techniques used in the presentation of stimuli and recording of responses, while keeping extrinsic factors (e.g. environment, technical equipment) equal. In the final step we will publish the application on the Internet for everyone to participate. The data recorded online will be technically identical to data obtained during our second step, but will change the population sample and extrinsic factors, thereby enabling a direct comparison. To obtain as much supplementary information as possible, we will record several technical parameters (e.g. screen resolution, operating system, browser version) and ask participants for detailed demographic data to explore possible influential factors, e.g., of equipment, age and provenance.

Semmelmann: Fig. 1[Bildunterschrift / Subline]: Figure 1. Conceptual Approach of the investigation. Five well-known and reliable psychological experiments go through a three-step process to find differences in either technological or environmental changes an online experiment would face, compared to today's Gold Standard methods.

Via this step-by-step approach, we will be able to differentiate to which extent online measurements impact behavioral data and what the major influencing factors are. The results will be crucial for answering our research question if the Internet is suitable for psychological research. If we prove that data obtained through the Internet is not different from classical testing environments, this will create a whole new research method, influencing not only psychology, but all other fields of empirical science. It might be a first common ground to build upon when thinking about cognitive training for the elderly, augmenting the education of our youth and thus open previously unforeseen possibilities in research.


Further information: www.entwicklungsneuropsychologie.de

Scientific career
  • since 10/2013
  • Doctoral Candidate in Psychology, Dissertation Topic: "Is the Internet suitable for psychological research?" Institute of Psychology, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany
  • 2011-2013
  • Elite Graduate Program Neuro-Cognitive Psychology, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
  • 2008-2011
  • Bachelor of Science in Cognitive Science, Universität Osnabrück, Germany

Scholarships and Awards
  • * Travel award Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes (2014)
  • * Participation at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting
  • * "The Drucker Challenge" essay competition: Top 15
  • * PhD scholarship by Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes (since 2014)
  • * "Leader of Tomorrow" St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award: Top 10 (2014)
  • * "Leader of Tomorrow" St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award: First place (2013)
  • * LMU PROMOS + DAAD PROSA travel scholarship (2013)
  • * LMU PROMOS + DAAD PROSA travel scholarship (2012)
  • * Max Weber-scholarship holder (2012-2013)
  • * DAAD: Research Internships in Science and Engineering (2010)

Publications and Conference Presentations
  • * Semmelmann & Weigelt: "Is the Internet suitable for psychological research?" Poster, DGPS congress 2014.
  • * 3. Graduate Workshop: General Psychology
  • * Horowitz, T., Semmelmann, K., Boettcher, S., & Wolfe, J. M. (2013). Visual foraging: Quitting behavior when searching aerial maps follows the Marginal Value Theorem. Presented at Annual Meeting of Vision Sciences Society, Naples, FL.
  • * Semmelmann, K., Rangelov, D., Müller, H. J., & Zehetleitner, M. (2012). Investigating the spatio-temporal course of attention through Landolt rings as probes. Presented at Visual Search and Selective Attention meeting, Munich.
  • * Koldewyn, K., Weigelt, S., Semmelmann, K., & Kanwisher, N. (2012). A region in the Posterior Superior Temporal Sulcus (pSTS) appears to be selectively engaged in the perception of social interactions. Presented at Annual Meeting of Vision Science Society