Case Studies

How the University of Chicago is researching decision-making with Prolific

May 2, 2024

Dr. Boaz Keysar leads the Multilingualism and Decision-Making Lab at the University of Chicago. Here, they explore how decision-making changes with language and age. Recently, the lab has investigated how a cognitive bias called the "zero-sum bias" changes as people get older.

Prolific, along with Cognition Lab–a platform for web-based cognitive testing–has been critical in enabling this research.

The task

The zero-sum bias is the concept that ‘to get what you want, others need to “lose”’. In reality, however, you might both be able to reach a win-win solution. Essentially, the zero-sum bias is the incorrect assumption that other people's interests are completely opposite to your own.

The Multilingualism and Decision-Making Lab wanted to study how this bias may change with age. They hypothesised that older people might exhibit this bias less than younger people. Consequently, this could make them better decision-makers in certain contexts.

But cognitive performance can also change with age. Researchers like Veronica Vazquez Olivieri needed to account for this by measuring executive functioning. That's where Cognition Lab came in, supplying these measures through their platform.

The challenge

Traditionally, the lab conducted research in person. Participants came in and completed tasks in a controlled environment.

But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, everything changed. Since then, the way in which people conduct research has evolved. The lab needed to pivot to online methods, or else face serious delays to their work, especially during Covid.

As Veronica explains: "If we didn't go online, there would be a pause of months if not years to ongoing research."

The lab needed a way to recruit participants remotely. But not just any participants. They needed a vast pool of people to investigate how zero-sum bias changes with age. Age ranges started at 18, going all the way up to 80 and beyond.

The solution

The Multilingualism and Decision-Making Lab learned about Prolific. They quickly saw that it was the perfect solution for taking their research online.

As Veronica notes: "Prolific has been quite instrumental to moving our research forward. It gives us the ability to collect data not only in the US, but also worldwide and across languages."

Prolific's platform gives access to a large and diverse pool of potential participants, including older adults in their 70s and 80s. The detailed demographic filters let them balance samples across age, gender, and geographic location.

But the lab didn't just need participants. To meet the scientific rigor of their field, they also required a way to administer cognitive tests online. They found the answer in Cognition Lab.

Integrating tools to break new ground

The team used an innovative integration of:

  • Prolific as a recruiting platform.
  • Qualtrics as the decision-prompting tool.
  • Cognition Lab as the cognitive assessment tool.

With these tools combined, they used redirect and URL features to create a multi-faceted chain of tasks, presented to the participant in one single test session.

Once the Prolific participants completed a survey task in Qualtrics, they were redirected to Cognition Lab. Then, when they completed the cognitive tasks in Cognition Lab, they were redirected back to Prolific. The Prolific ID was forwarded within all URLs to tag results with the same ID across the different tools involved.

Integrating Prolific, Qualtrics, and Cognition Lab allowed the researchers to create a smooth participant journey and collect high-quality data at scale.

Moving online enhanced their research. As Veronica describes: "In-person, we recruit a hundred people—this takes a lot of time. Online, you have data on hundreds of people by the end of the week."

The results

The research is still ongoing and Veronica and the rest of the team plan to publish a paper in the coming months. But they've already replicated some intriguing preliminary findings.

Their data suggests that older adults do indeed exhibit the zero-sum bias less than younger people. Even after accounting for cognitive differences, it seems that age and experience may reduce this bias and improve decision-making in some contexts.

This bias might play a key role in many areas of life. Veronica explains: "Say you're negotiating your rent or the price of a car, or anything in society. The extrapolation of our findings would suggest that older people can recognize that there is an opportunity to create win-win solutions. Whereas younger people might perceive it as more competitive and create less opportunity for these types of agreements."

Beyond the scientific implications, the research also highlights the power of online methods for behavioral research. By combining the strengths of Prolific, Qualtrics, and Cognition Lab, the team was able to continue their vital work through the disruptions of the pandemic.

As Veronica summarises: "One of the biggest benefits of using Prolific is the participant pool that it offers, both in terms of size and diversity. It's allowed us to recruit much larger sample sizes to test our theories than we could ever do in person."

The team got what they needed. The right type of research was achievable. And results that were unattainable before now offer new insight into bias. A win for all involved.

Summary: Cognitive assessment with Prolific and Cognition Lab

The research is far from over. But one thing is clear: the team at the University of Chicago is breaking new ground. 

By taking their research online with platforms like Prolific and Cognition Lab, they can administer cognitive tasks to a well-defined population of participants. And with this approach, they're helping us understand how decision-making changes with age in ways that were never before possible.

If you're looking to recruit vetted research participants at scale, Prolific can help. Get started for free today