📔The task


In their research, Rut­ledge and his team build com­pu­ta­tion­al models that explain how humans learn and make deci­sions. This research poses the ques­tions: how do people make deci­sions? And what deter­mines the emo­tions we feel when we expe­ri­ence the out­comes of those decisions?


Rut­ledge and his team designed a smart­phone-based experiment, Hap­pi­ness Quest, with mul­ti­ple games to study deci­sion making. In one game, users have a choice between two options: one safe and one risky.


For example, one option might be a guar­an­teed 50 points, whereas the other is the chance to win 100 or get 0. Par­tic­i­pants choose an option, and if they choose the risky option they find out whether they win or not. After every choice, they report how happy they feel at that moment. This data then helps develop com­pu­ta­tion­al models to try and predict what people might feel as a result of the out­comes of their past decisions.


When it comes to his stu­dents, Rut­ledge runs a semes­ter-long class at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty on the topic of com­pu­ta­tion­al models. In the class, he asks each student to design and create a psy­cho­log­i­cal study of their choice and then collect and analyze data.


🎯The chal­lenge


In the research that his lab con­ducts, Rut­ledge needs large samples of people to under­stand all of the dif­fer­ences between indi­vid­u­als that make us who we are. He wanted to recruit people who may strug­gle with in-person studies, includ­ing the elderly and people with mental health conditions.


Rut­ledge was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in con­nect­ing with people who strug­gle with anxiety and depres­sion, and who may find the lab setting stress­ful, meaning that par­tic­i­pants may not answer nat­u­ral­ly in that setting.


On the tech­ni­cal side of things, Rut­ledge wanted to be able to quickly test new games and vari­a­tions on his orig­i­nal studies that would allow testing of new ideas that could even­tu­al­ly end up in the app. One that didn’t involve messing around with coding and updates to the exist­ing app.


For his stu­dents, Rut­ledge had to make sure that any­thing he sug­gest­ed was easy to use and rapid. This meant that exper­i­ments had to be easy to design, with no com­pli­cat­ed coding. And data col­lec­tion would need to be done in under a week. Stu­dents need to be able to run mul­ti­ple exper­i­ments and have enough time for their analyses.


💡The solu­tion


Rut­ledge decided to use both Pro­lif­ic and Gorilla in tandem. And he has con­tin­ued to do so for the past 5 years!


Using Pro­lif­ic in his lab’s research, he was able to gain a large amount of data from big samples in a matter of days. The research taking place online also helped any par­tic­i­pants who suffer with anxiety dis­or­ders feel com­fort­able and calm, and able to deliver more ‘true to life’ data.


The com­bi­na­tion of Pro­lif­ic and Gorilla allowed Rut­ledge to find con­nec­tions and con­clu­sions that would have been harder to find in smaller in-lab samples. Mental health is highly het­ero­ge­neous, making it hard to under­stand. There is often some nuance to novel find­ings. Using these large and broad samples, Rut­ledge was able to iterate his exper­i­ments quickly.


Rut­ledge’s lab still does lab-based research (you can’t do a brain scan on someone remote­ly!), but most projects start out online because, as he says, “when you have a new idea, you can put some­thing togeth­er and have results in a matter of days.”


Pro­lif­ic and Gorilla not only sup­port­ed his lab’s research but his stu­dents also loved these plat­forms! No one in his class had ever used Pro­lif­ic or Gorilla before. But stu­dents were able to run exper­i­ments and analyze the data within a week. Engag­ing in prac­ti­cal research is an invalu­able learn­ing expe­ri­ence that stu­dents enjoy — and it enhances their research skills.

“It’s an all-in-one solu­tion with Pro­lif­ic and Gorilla […] that’s why I use it in my class”
- Robb Rutledge


🔍The results

This research influ­ences the devel­op­ment of a new app called Hap­pi­ness Quest. This app allows users any­where in the world to play deci­sion-making minigames which eval­u­ate their choices and the emo­tions they feel as a result of the deci­sions they make. Results of past studies can be found here.


Pre­vi­ous studies have iden­ti­fied a math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion that can predict how happy people will be from minute to minute. In short, hap­pi­ness depends not on how well you are doing, but whether you are doing better than expect­ed. You can par­tic­i­pate in ongoing research by playing games on your smart­phone.