Joseph Devlin
February 2020

What do you work on?

I am inter­est­ed in how the world out­side of acad­e­mia uses Psy­chol­o­gy and Neu­ro­science to address real-world prob­lems. This broad­ly falls under the cat­e­go­ry of “neu­ro­mar­ket­ing” or “edu­ca­tion­al neu­ro­science”, although I’m not in love with either of those terms. In a nut­shell, I am inter­est­ed in using the meth­ods, tech­niques and insights from acad­e­mia to address real-world prob­lems in robust, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly rig­or­ous and novel ways.

What did you do using Gorilla?

We ran an exper­i­ment in part­ner­ship with Audi­ble, that inves­ti­gat­ed whether peo­ple respond dif­fer­ent­ly to emo­tion­al­ly engag­ing scenes when they are deliv­ered in video or audio­book for­mat. 102 vol­un­teers (aged 18 – 55) watched clips and lis­tened to audio­book scenes from eight block­busters and best­sellers: Game of Thrones, Girl On The Train, Pride & Prej­u­dice, Silence of the Lambs, Great Expec­ta­tions, The Da Vinci Code, Hound of the Baskervilles, and Alien. Spe­cif­ic scenes from each title were select­ed based on their emo­tion­al inten­si­ty, com­par­a­tive length, and sim­i­lar­i­ty of nar­ra­tive (i.e. min­i­mal dif­fer­ences in the sto­ry­line between audio and video adap­ta­tions). The sto­ries were pre­sent­ed using Gorilla and after each one, par­tic­i­pants were asked about their engage­ment with the story. At the same time, we record­ed implic­it phys­i­o­log­i­cal mea­sure­ments such as heart rate and elec­tro­der­mal activ­i­ty using bio­met­ric sen­sors on the par­tic­i­pants because these phys­i­o­log­i­cal sig­nals can reveal cog­ni­tive pro­cess­ing and sub-con­scious emo­tion­al arousal in the brain.

“An analy­sis of par­tic­i­pants’ bio­log­i­cal data revealed that lis­ten­ing to audio­books elicit­ed a more intense phys­i­o­log­i­cal and emo­tion­al reac­tion than watch­ing a screen.”

What was your study protocol?

Par­tic­i­pants received infor­ma­tion about the exper­i­ment and then pro­vid­ed informed con­sent. They then answered a few ques­tions about their cur­rent mood, media expe­ri­ence, per­son­al­i­ty, etc before watching/listening to short excerpts from 8 pop­u­lar books. These were either pre­sent­ed as videos (4) or audio­book (4) and par­tic­i­pants then answered some ques­tions about their expe­ri­ence and engage­ment with each story. At the same time, par­tic­i­pants were wear­ing bio­met­ric sen­sors record­ing heart rate, gal­van­ic skin response, body tem­per­a­ture, and accel­er­a­tion (ie arm move­ment) data so that we had a com­bi­na­tion of explic­it, self-report mea­sure­ments (from Gorilla) and implic­it, phys­i­o­log­i­cal mea­sure­ments (from the bio­met­ric sen­sors). This allowed us to com­pare the two and inves­ti­gate the extent to which they pro­vid­ed com­ple­men­tary infor­ma­tion about engag­ing with the stories.

What did you find?

We found that par­tic­i­pants explic­it­ly rated the videos as more engag­ing than the audio­books but an analy­sis of par­tic­i­pants’ bio­log­i­cal data revealed that lis­ten­ing to audio­books elicit­ed a more intense phys­i­o­log­i­cal and emo­tion­al reac­tion than watch­ing a screen. For instance, our vol­un­teers had high­er heart rates by an aver­age of 2 beats per minute; their elec­tro­der­mal activ­i­ty (a mea­sure of auto­nom­ic ner­vous sys­tem response due to emo­tion­al inten­si­ty) was high­er and their body tem­per­a­ture was even 0.37C degrees warmer when lis­ten­ing to the audio­book clips rel­a­tive to watch­ing the videos. This is despite the fact that for both types of clips, par­tic­i­pants were sit­ting in a quiet, dark­ened room. They even had high­er highs and lower lows in their heart rates when lis­ten­ing ver­sus watch­ing, sug­gest­ing stronger emo­tion­al ampli­fi­ca­tion. There is an exam­ple of these find­ings based on the scene in Game of Thrones where Ned Stark scene is behead­ed avail­able below, and on YouTube here.


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We inter­pret our results as evi­dence that lis­ten­ing to audio­books is a more emo­tion­al­ly engag­ing way of enjoy­ing a story than watch­ing that same story as a video. We hypoth­e­size this is a result of the more active imag­i­na­tion process­es that a lis­ten­er pro­duces rel­a­tive to the more pas­sive view­ing of a video. In other words, when lis­ten­ing, you active­ly sim­u­late the story in your mind, a process that is more demand­ing than pas­sive­ly tak­ing in the vision of the direc­tor of a video. As a result, there are stronger phys­i­o­log­i­cal sig­nals of this engagement.

Has this study been published?

The paper is cur­rent­ly under con­sid­er­a­tion at PLOSone but a pre-print is avail­able on bioRx­iv here for any­one inter­est­ed in the full details.

What is the biggest advan­tage of online research methods?

Bet­ter sam­pling of the pop­u­la­tion. You not only get a wider demo­graph­ic spread but also get to test much larg­er numbers.

“The fact that the data are auto­mat­i­cal­ly coded with uni­ver­sal time stamps is help­ful in link­ing the explic­it behav­iour­al data from Gorilla with the implic­it phys­i­o­log­i­cal data from the bio­met­ric sensors.”

How do you think online research is going to change your field?

I think it facil­i­tates col­lect­ing behav­iour­al data on a wider scale but I’m not sure that is chang­ing our field so much as evolv­ing it. To my mind, behav­iour­al data are par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful when com­bined with other types of data (phys­i­o­log­i­cal, neur­al) – at least in answer­ing the ques­tions I am most inter­est­ed in. In this sense, the cur­rent form of Gorilla is prob­a­bly a step­ping stone towards a more inte­grat­ed data col­lec­tion scheme in the future. Goril­la’s new eye- and mouse-track­ing fea­tures are a good start!

For you, what is the stand-out fea­ture in Gorilla?

Abil­i­ty to do web-based data col­lec­tion. It also has nice teach­ing fea­tures for our under­grad­u­ates, not all of whom learn to code as well as one might hope.

Why did you choose Gorilla?

Col­leagues of mine were using it for web-based exper­i­ments as well as with­in the lab. For behav­iour­al exper­i­ments, it is real­ly easy-to-use, con­ve­nient and scalable.

How did Gorilla make your life or research bet­ter, eas­i­er or faster?

For this par­tic­u­lar exper­i­ment, the fact that the data are auto­mat­i­cal­ly coded with uni­ver­sal time stamps is help­ful in link­ing the explic­it behav­iour­al data from Gorilla with the implic­it phys­i­o­log­i­cal data from the bio­met­ric sen­sors (that also use UTC stamps).

What improve­ments would you like to see in Gorilla to make your research easier?

Under Task Struc­ture, I find the dis­play edi­tor some­what clunky to use. It would be help­ful if it were much larg­er and allowed the abil­i­ty to pre­view lay­outs, fonts, etc with­out hav­ing to com­mit a new ver­sion each time.

Response from Gorilla:

Hi Joseph,

We agree that a larg­er size would be help­ful. We’re work­ing on a new user inter­face for that screen and sev­er­al oth­ers. It will hope­ful­ly come out later this year.

In Gorilla you can pre­view con­tent with­out hav­ing to com­mit a new ver­sion every time. When you pre­view you’ll always see the lat­est set­tings, even if it has­n’t been committed.

What chal­lenges are you fac­ing in your area of behav­iour­al science?

For me, I often want to com­bine large web-based sam­ples with small­er datasets where I can col­lect addi­tion­al phys­i­o­log­i­cal data. At the moment, there is no way to do both of these simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Things things like Fit­bits, Apple and Sam­sung watch­es offer the poten­tial for col­lect­ing bio­met­ric data in the future. Col­lec­tion of eye­track­ing data using lap­top web­cams looks to be pos­si­ble now in Gorilla.

What real-world prob­lem do you see that your research could impact?

How to choose?! My work is direct­ly relat­ed to under­stand­ing how audi­ences engage and there­fore is rel­e­vant to con­tent providers (movies, TV, online), live per­for­mance (music, the­atre, dance, com­e­dy), mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions (cor­po­rate, health, char­i­ty, polit­i­cal), edu­ca­tion, and prob­a­bly even law if you con­sid­er court­room “per­for­mances” and jurors as “audi­ence.” Real-world prob­lems are the focus of my cur­rent research program.

What do you believe to be true that you can­not prove (yet)?

I believe that human lan­guage abil­i­ty is a direct result of small changes in brain wiring between us and our pri­mate cousins, pre­sum­ably down to minor genet­ic changes affect­ing the action of axon growth cones.

What are the main ways peo­ple mis­un­der­stand your thesis?

Changes to brain wiring are more trans­for­ma­tive than sim­ply link­ing two dif­fer­ent regions togeth­er – they fun­da­men­tal­ly alter the nature of the infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing but this dis­tinc­tion is often missed.

What do you not believe, that the major­i­ty in your field do believe?

I think the impor­tance of lat­er­al­i­ty in the brain is vast­ly over stated.

What is the most excit­ing piece of research you’ve ever done?

My friend and col­league, Daniel Richard­son and I, did a fab­u­lous lit­tle exper­i­ment where we put to the test the idea that peo­ple can tell food cooked on a char­coal BBQ from food cooked on a gas BBQ. As an avid BBQer devot­ed to my char­coal Weber grill, I knew char­coal was bet­ter but I got a chance to prove this when we were invit­ed by the Times news­pa­per to run London’s first BBQ exper­i­ment (July 2013). To my hor­ror, nei­ther myself nor the peo­ple we test­ed could reli­ably tell food cooked on a char­coal grill from the same food cooked on a gas grill in blind taste tests. It was, and remains, my favourite exam­ple of cog­ni­tive bias over­rid­ing ratio­nal deci­sion mak­ing – even though I con­duct­ed the exper­i­ment and eval­u­at­ed the evi­dence, I still don’t believe (at an emo­tion­al level) my own results and con­tin­ue to swear by char­coal grill. Intel­lec­tu­al­ly, I know I’m wrong as I col­lect­ed the evi­dence to prove it! Prob­a­bly the most fun exper­i­ment I’ve ever run.

What advice would you give to some­one start­ing out in behav­iour­al science/research?

Work hard and do what you love. Make an effort to make every­thing you do as acces­si­ble as pos­si­ble to a wide audience.

If you could inter­view any researcher (alive or dead), who would it be and why?

Alan Tur­ing, the father of com­put­ing. Tur­ing saw so much fur­ther that any­one around him and his vision trans­formed our soci­ety. But even in the 1920s/30s he fore­saw some of the impli­ca­tions of his work, describ­ing soft­ware engi­neers and AI as con­se­quences of his the­o­ry of com­putable num­bers (which was very the­o­ret­i­cal). I’d love to under­stand more of how he thought.

Who or what orig­i­nal­ly inspired you to work in your field of research?

There is an AI called Mike in Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mis­tress that inspired me to do my PhD in AI. Sadly, the real­i­ty of AI didn’t meet the excite­ment that was Mike, and I tran­si­tioned from arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence into nat­ur­al intel­li­gence. I stud­ied the neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy of lan­guage for about 20 years before becom­ing inter­est­ed in how psy­chol­o­gy and neu­ro­science are used by the wider com­mu­ni­ty (e.g. busi­ness, edu­ca­tion, gov­ern­ment, etc) which is how I ended up work­ing in con­sumer neuroscience.

On a per­son­al level, what are you most proud of?

My fam­i­ly. I have an amaz­ing wife and two fab­u­lous daugh­ters, who are each a force of nature. I try to keep up!

When you’re not work­ing, what do you enjoy doing?

BBQing, read­ing, fight­ing (mar­tial arts).

What sci­ence book have you read recent­ly that you’d rec­om­mend to others?

I love David Hand’s Improb­a­bil­i­ty Prin­ci­ple. David explains why unbe­liev­ably improb­a­ble events (like win­ning the lot­tery twice or get­ting hit by light­ning mul­ti­ple times) hap­pen all the time. The strands of his argu­ment (selec­tion bias, law of large num­bers, prob­a­bil­i­ty levers, etc) are things we rou­tine­ly deal with as data sci­en­tists but often over­look their impor­tance. Although it is not the focus of the book, this was the best expla­na­tion of the repli­ca­tion cri­sis in psy­chol­o­gy that I’ve read and it forced me to think care­ful­ly about so many aspects of my data han­dling life that I was tak­ing for grant­ed. Very acces­si­ble and easy to read and very pow­er­ful too.

What’s your favourite STEM joke?

There are 10 types of peo­ple in this world: those who know bina­ry and those who don’t.


Joseph Devlin
Consumer Neuroscience
Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience & Vice-dean (Enterprise & Innovation) for the Faculty of Brain Sciences
Joseph Devlin

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