Expand­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties in Cog­ni­tive and Social Sci­ences Research

In the past decade, the cog­ni­tive and behav­iour­al sci­ences have expe­ri­enced a sig­nif­i­cant shift from con­duct­ing in-person lab testing to running tra­di­tion­al lab studies online. This tran­si­tion has been driven by the chal­lenges asso­ci­at­ed with par­tic­i­pant recruit­ment, time con­straints, and high costs involved in bring­ing par­tic­i­pants to the phys­i­cal lab. Moving research online has not only increased the speed and scal­a­bil­i­ty of behav­iour­al studies but has also enhanced their robust­ness and replicability.

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic further accel­er­at­ed this shift, prompt­ing researchers to explore inno­v­a­tive tools that facil­i­tate online exper­i­men­ta­tion. One such tool is the Gorilla Experiment Builder, which has played a pivotal role in enabling behav­iour­al research to con­tin­ue seam­less­ly even during global lockdowns.


For those unfa­mil­iar with Gorilla, it serves as an all-in-one plat­form that enables a wide variety of online behav­iour­al exper­i­ments, includ­ing reac­tion time tasks, surveys, games, mul­ti­play­er tasks, shop­ping sim­u­la­tions, and more. As one researcher aptly put it, “If you can dream it, Gorilla can test it!” The plat­form pro­vides researchers with the nec­es­sary build­ing blocks to create a wide range of behav­iour­al exper­i­ments without requir­ing any coding skills.

Enabling Mul­ti­play­er Experiments


Mul­ti­play­er studies have always held a sig­nif­i­cant posi­tion in exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gy. The renowned Asch con­for­mi­ty study, often taught to under­grad­u­ates, exem­pli­fies the power of social influ­ence and con­for­mi­ty within group set­tings. Human expe­ri­ences such as nego­ti­a­tion, coop­er­a­tion, com­pe­ti­tion, and theory of mind are deeply rooted in social inter­ac­tions. However, mul­ti­play­er exper­i­ments have his­tor­i­cal­ly remained a niche research method­ol­o­gy com­pared to surveys.  Why? 


This dis­par­i­ty can be attrib­uted to the inher­ent tech­ni­cal chal­lenges asso­ci­at­ed with setting up and recruit­ing for mul­ti­play­er exper­i­ments, which have limited their wide­spread adop­tion across the cog­ni­tive and social sci­ences. Con­se­quent­ly, our under­stand­ing of the vari­ance in human behav­iour due to social sit­u­a­tions has been regret­tably constrained.


As our lives become increas­ing­ly inter­twined with online plat­forms and video con­fer­enc­ing, an excit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty arises: the ability to conduct mul­ti­play­er exper­i­ments with ease in an online envi­ron­ment. This pos­si­bil­i­ty has become a reality with the recent addi­tion of mul­ti­play­er func­tion­al­i­ty to Goril­la’s Task Builder tool, already widely adopted across various psy­chol­o­gy dis­ci­plines. The mul­ti­play­er feature enables both simul­ta­ne­ous and turn-based actions and sup­ports 2–8 players. Fur­ther­more, Gorilla allows for seam­less inte­gra­tion of online mul­ti­play­er tasks with indi­vid­ual tasks or surveys, facil­i­tat­ing the remote col­lec­tion of rich mixed-method data.

 Gorilla Mul­ti­play­er Demo — learn more about Gorilla Mul­ti­play­er here

What makes this devel­op­ment par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ing is that many cog­ni­tive phe­nom­e­na have tra­di­tion­al­ly been studied in iso­la­tion, despite their inher­ent social nature. Take lan­guage, for example. The major­i­ty of psy­cholin­guis­tic studies involve a single iso­lat­ed par­tic­i­pant, over­look­ing the inher­ent­ly social aspect of lan­guage as a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. By study­ing lan­guage in a well-con­trolled and exper­i­men­tal­ly manip­u­lat­ed social envi­ron­ment, we can poten­tial­ly gain deeper insights into its complexities.


What’s changed tech­ni­cal­ly to make online mul­ti­play­er studies possible?


Online Mul­ti­play­er studies have been made pos­si­ble by 4 aspects of func­tion­al­i­ty coming together:


Mul­ti­play­er Tool:  Gorilla offers a user-friend­ly inter­face that allows researchers to create online exper­i­ments without the need for coding exper­tise.  The mul­ti­play­er func­tion­al­i­ty has been added to the main task builder, such that all the func­tion­al­i­ty avail­able in the task builder (reac­tions times, mouse-track­ing, drag and drop, drawing etc) are avail­able in mul­ti­play­er too! Researchers can build their task just as if it was a solo, single-player task, and then simply specify which ele­ments on each screen should be visible to each player. They can also con­fig­ure respons­es and other data to be saved to syn­chro­nised, net­worked vari­ables, making it easy to capture a response from Player A and then show it to Player B in real time. Gorilla handles all of the complex syn­chro­ni­sa­tion and also sup­ports text and video chat, ensur­ing par­tic­i­pants believe they are in a gen­uine­ly inter­ac­tive experiment. The text chat records are also avail­able as part of the experiment data.


Lobby:  To facil­i­tate par­tic­i­pa­tion in mul­ti­play­er tasks, a lobby system is essen­tial. Think of it as the waiting area where par­tic­i­pants join before the task begins. If you’ve ever played Among Us, you under­stand the impor­tance of a lobby! Gorilla incor­po­rates this lobby func­tion­al­i­ty seam­less­ly into its experiment tree, ensur­ing a smooth tran­si­tion from the recruit­ment stage to the start of the mul­ti­play­er task.  You can even design your pro­to­col to have mul­ti­ple rounds where par­tic­i­pants rejoin a lobby to be part­nered up in dif­fer­ent (random) pairs.


Pro­lif­ic Liq­uid­i­ty:  Pro­lif­ic has great par­tic­i­pant liq­uid­i­ty on their site. By liq­uid­i­ty we mean more active par­tic­i­pants than are required for the number of studies recruit­ing at any one time. And so it’s easy to get enough par­tic­i­pants through to your study to fill a mul­ti­play­er lobby. 


Rate Lim­it­ing: Pro­lif­ic oper­ates an algo­rithm in the back­ground to ensure that the most active par­tic­i­pants don’t get all of the studies and thus pre­serve par­tic­i­pant naivety. However, you can ask for this feature to be switched off to super­charge your recruit­ment speed and ensure that no par­tic­i­pant is waiting in the mul­ti­play­er lobby for very long. Simply contact the Pro­lif­ic support team and request that they turn off the rate limiter for your study before you publish it. 


Togeth­er, we think these pos­si­bil­i­ties allow cog­ni­tive and social science researchers to answer ques­tions that were pre­vi­ous­ly imprac­ti­cal or too expen­sive to answer.  Thereby enabling the research com­mu­ni­ty to better under­stand how groups of people make deci­sions together. 


Many of the chal­lenges facing our society come down to how we can inspire and organ­ise our­selves to act togeth­er.  Researchers will need to embrace inno­v­a­tive tools and approach­es to provide answers.


Jo Ever­shed

Jo is the CEO and co-founder of Caul­dron and Gorilla. Her mission is to provide behav­iour­al sci­en­tists with the tools needed to improve the scale and impact of the evi­dence-based inter­ven­tions that benefit society. 


Andrew Gordon

Senior Research Con­sul­tant, Prolific

Andrew Gordon, PhD, is Prolific’s Senior Research Con­sul­tant. Dr Gordon com­plet­ed a BSc in Psy­chol­o­gy at Roe­hamp­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, fol­lowed by an MSc in Neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bristol, and a PhD in Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science also at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bristol exam­in­ing the neural under­pin­ning of reliance on misinformation.

Before working for Pro­lif­ic he spent two years as a Post­doc­tor­al Scholar at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, working on cre­at­ing new behav­iour­al and func­tion­al imaging par­a­digms for assess­ing cog­ni­tive control in chil­dren with ASD. At Pro­lif­ic he works direct­ly with researchers to make sure that they get the most out of Pro­lif­ic and sup­ports them at each stage of the research process.