We’ve all seen those quizzes on the web and in our social media feeds: Which 90s TV star are you? What character would you be in the Harry Potter universe? Normally, we see them as a fun and inconsequential distraction, a way to pass the time while we’re waiting in line at the store or unwinding at the end of the day.
It turns out, however, that web-based quizzes can be a powerful research tool.
While they may not be able to tell you what celebrity you resemble or what your spirit animal would be, a team of researchers led by Mass General’s Laura Germine, PhD, has been using web-based testing for more than a decade to gain valuable scientific insights into the mysteries of human cognition.
Germine, an investigator in the Mass General Department of Psychiatry, is a pioneer in the growing field of citizen science, a process where large numbers of people contribute to science—usually online—by volunteering to participate in experiments posted by
By posting cognitive assessment tests on her website, TestMyBrain.org, Germine has been able to gain access to a much larger pool of research subjects than would be possible with a traditional in-lab research study.
She has also been able to capture the types of subjects who have been difficult to recruit into research, such as middle-aged subjects who are typically at work or with children when most research studies are conducted in the lab.
“It’s nice to be able to have an experiment where instead of having 40 to 50 to 100 people, we get 1,000 to 5,000 to 10,000 people,” Germine explained in a recent interview. “It makes for science that is more statistically powerful. In a traditional trial it’s usually not feasible to get that many people in the door. It’s just never going to happen. If you could, it would be at an enormous expense.”