Sticky Little Scientists

Working towards better community sampling for psychology studies
MARCH 2018
Brain and Cognitive Sciences

The excited squeals of a young child as she bursts into a new place designed just for her to explore can be a magical thing to witness; but multiply that excitement and noise (and sticky hands) by a few hundred and you have a typical Sunday at the Boston Children’s Museum. As a second year graduate student in cognitive science, I study children’s intuitive statistical and scientific reasoning. Who better to learn from than a few hundred sticky little scientists?

Instead of bringing families into the lab to participate in our research, we do most of our data collection at the Boston Children’s Museum. Testing at the museum has its benefits and its challenges – it offers a unique ability to quickly gather a lot of data from families that are excited to participate, but also biases our sample of children towards those from families that have the privilege and ability to take their children to the museum in the first place.

There is something that we sarcastically call the ‘Cambridge effect,’ which refers to the idea that young children in Cambridge are often precocious and act beyond their years because they live in a city, and many in a family, that is so centered on education. With this sarcasm comes a real hesitancy about whether or not the children that we’re testing are representative of the children we hope to help with the knowledge that we gain from our research. The sample of families that we are able to recruit at the Children’s Museum (which has a pretty steep admission price of $17 a head) differs significantly from the average national population in terms of income and education level, which most likely has an impact on the age in which children might develop certain skills.

This is a question that many labs across the country deal with—developmental research labs across the country often recruit families from their on-campus preschool, which often exclusively cares for the children of faculty and staff at that university. Balancing the drawbacks of a potentially biased sample with the benefit of being able to more quickly and effectively find answers to questions we have about development is a topic of frequent conversation in our lab, and most likely in many labs working with human participants. This concern isn’t just limited to developmental research; a vast amount of adult psychology research has been gathered exclusively from a convenient sample of college undergraduates.

So how can we work to improve and expand our samples moving forward? One exciting avenue that can be used to reach more representative samples is online testing. Many psychology and cognition labs now use Amazon Mechanical Turk (‘MTurk’) to run studies online, which allows access to participants across the country, or even across the world. Dr. Kim Scott, a research scientist in BCS, is working on developing a similar online testing platform for children, called Lookit ( The platform offers a way for families to participate in different developmental studies from their own homes. The population that researchers are able to access using Lookit is much more reflective of average educational and income levels in the U.S., and avoids the local effects of testing only within the Cambridge limits. The development and expansion of these tools are an exciting move in the right direction, and will allow not only for more diversity in the research population, but also for larger samples and multiple replications to be used to validate results.

Even as these online platforms improve, I think working with children and families face-to-face can be expanded on and improved rather than replaced. Spending a few days a week at the museum has taught me a lot about the perception of graduate students in the community, and given me more perspective on how my research might impact children and families. It is really fulfilling to see kids enjoy and succeed at a research game you’ve designed and to get parents’ feedback on what you’re studying, even if after a day there you need a few gallons of Purell and a good long nap.