SciTech

Research café studies decision making and provides incentives

The Research Café aims to study decision making among many people with a variety of backgrounds. (credit: Daniel Tkacik/Photo staff) The Research Café aims to study decision making among many people with a variety of backgrounds. (credit: Daniel Tkacik/Photo staff) We make decisions quickly about almost all of our actions. Decision making in many topics, including privacy and energy conservation, is being studied at the Carnegie Mellon Research Café. To draw in participants from a variety of backgrounds, the research center is offering incentives, such as gift cards and cash. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) We make decisions quickly about almost all of our actions. Decision making in many topics, including privacy and energy conservation, is being studied at the Carnegie Mellon Research Café. To draw in participants from a variety of backgrounds, the research center is offering incentives, such as gift cards and cash. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Every day is full of decisions. Store brand or name brand? Take the bus or walk to school? Understanding how people make decisions would involve compiling massive amounts of decision-making data. But some researchers at Carnegie Mellon have come up with a unique solution: build a “research café” in the middle of a busy food court and allow the data to come to them.

The Carnegie Mellon Research Café is a product of the Center for Behavioral Decision Research (CBDR), a group of over 50 researchers from various departments at Carnegie Mellon. In addition to conducting various types of experiments, CBDR researchers may use surveys as a common tool to extract decision-making information from participants.

Located in the food court of Fifth Avenue Place in downtown Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Mellon Research Café allows people who are interested in a decision-making study to participate in one. Some of the studies have certain eligibility requirements, but many of the studies only require you to be at least 18 years old and capable of using a computer. Participants simply walk in, sit down, and start answering questions relating to some decision-making scenario. After the survey is completed, the participants are rewarded with cash or gift cards.

Because it is located in the middle of a food court in a busy city, the Research Café receives all kinds of visitors, which is important for any researcher trying to obtain data from a range of populations.

“The idea behind it is to collect data in the general public so that we’re not just in the middle of a university. We can get data from different demographics this way,” said Amanda Poe, a lab assistant for the CBDR.

“One convenience is that a lot of people know that we’re here and enjoyed their experience, so they’ll tell other people to come down here,” said Julianne Moon, another lab assistant for the CBDR. As people spread the word about the Research Café, new participants sustain the flow of data.

Although most participants come to the Research Café during lunch time, Poe explained that some people drop in on their way to work or on their way home, and there are even some who come in on their way to a baseball game.

“Right now, citizens and policy makers are asking themselves questions like: How can we reduce obesity in this country? How can we conserve energy? How do we save for retirement? How can we protect our privacy? And behavioral economics, while not the only tool we should be relying on when addressing these questions, can provide a number of insights into these topics,” said Jessica Kopsic, a research associate with the CBDR.

Kopsic further elaborateed on these important behavioral questions by explaining how the outcomes of decisions we make may have different short- and long-term effects. For example, eating a dessert after a meal will probably not make us gain five pounds; there is no significant short-term effect. However, eating a dessert after every meal every day over a long period of time may cause us to gain those five pounds. Sometimes the less desirable effects of a decision are not immediate, and this can affect the decisions we will make.

While the Research Café acts as a public laboratory to study these ideas, it also allows for people to gain something intellectually fulfilling for themselves.
“I think the Research Café is unique because it gives people an opportunity to learn about things they might not have a chance to be exposed to otherwise. People who have never set foot on a college campus, or would never think to, now have the opportunity to get involved in scientific research, do their part to help, and hopefully learn something interesting in the process,” Kopsic said.