Profs offer incentives to student guinea pigs

Whitney L. Becker

Psychology professors searching for test subjects are turning to cash-strapped Northwestern students.

Although professors prefer not to pay subjects in all experiments, they are willing to pay dedicated students who will make a time commitment to their project.

“I don’t pay unless the study is really time-intensive,” said psychology Prof. Eli Finkel, who specializes in social psychology. “Whenever possible I try to use the test pool, which is composed of Introduction to Psychology students. But for some studies, I need to look elsewhere.”

Finkel decided to offer a cash incentive for his freshman dating study last year.

The study required students to answer an online questionnaire about their relationships every other week and attend two one-hour meetings to discuss the study. Students were paid $100 for their participation.

“When an experiment takes more time than an hour, is labor intensive, and requires a specific type of student, I generally pay,” Finkel said. “That way I get students I need and who are dedicated and committed.”

The financial benefit attracted Christina Mergen, an Education sophomore, to the experiment. Mergen signed up after reading a flier for the study in the Allison dining hall.

“What really caught my eye at first about the experiment was the money,” Mergen said. “But once I got involved, I really learned a lot about myself and self-reflection. It made me think a lot about my relationship, and I’m happy I did it.”

Psychology Prof. Paul Reber, who specializes in neurology, regularly pays students he recruits for his studies.

“I get most of my brain imaging students through pay,” Reber said. “I need people willing to go downtown to an MRI center and then stay focused during the test. Through advertising I have found plenty of students willing to participate.”

Although NU professors conduct the studies, the university does not fund paid experiments. Most of the money given to students comes from a professor’s individual and independent research grants.

“The NIMH — National Institute of Mental Health — pays me to conduct research about brain memory,” Reber said. “All the money that I use to recruit subjects comes from those grants.”

When recruiting students for experiments, professors must follow established ethical guidelines for paying and choosing their subjects.

“The NIMH sets guidelines on when it is and is not ethical to pay,” Reber said. “For instance, if a test can cause harm or is seen as dangerous or difficult, it is unethical to pay. That is because I would be exploiting someone who needs money in a dangerous situation.”

Professors must also consider how much money to offer. If pay is too high, students not dedicated to the experiments will enroll. But low pay will not attract participants.

“We try to gauge what is appropriate,” Finkel said. “We pay enough to peak interest but not too much that the money is too good to turn down.”

Reach Whitney L. Becker at [email protected].