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New Open-Source Tool Simplifies Virtual Research

Abdullah Almaatouq, MIT Sloan Assistant Professor

Why do people make the decisions they do? How are those decisions influenced by friends and family? And how can we go about getting answers to such questions? MIT Sloan Assistant Professor Abdullah Almaatouq, a computational social scientist who is also affiliated with the MIT Center for Computational Science and Engineering and the MIT Connection Science research initiative, is trying to get to the bottom of all three questions. His open-source JavaScript framework Empirica makes it possible to run multiplayer interactive social experiments in a web browser. Almaatouq created Empirica as a free, user-friendly, easily adaptable research tool that is as statistically sound as it is accessible and offers a unique combination of power, flexibility, and speed. The goal of Almaatouq’s research is to deepen our understanding of how people make decisions in a social environment where decisions are often influenced by interactions with others. He is probing how groups of people balance the simultaneous demands of uncertainty, data scarcity, environmental fluctuations, and the need for coordination to harness collective intelligence.

People are increasingly comfortable in virtual environments

For generations, social scientists have been studying people in behavioral labs at universities—labs that typically involve herding a group of people into a room for a couple of hours and asking them to  perform a task of some kind. Empirica turns the lab virtual, employing software-controlled experiments with Internet participants. In addition to its flexibility and rigor, it will likely appeal to interview subjects who, in the pandemic age, have become comfortable engaging in a virtual environment.

Empirica makes it possible for researchers to create their own experimental games with minimal programming knowledge. Simple A/B tests with independent players feel intuitive and straightforward. And it’s easy to implement group experiments with real-time or asynchronous interactions in a factorial or within-subjects design as well as designs involving multiple types of units and conditional logic. Researchers deploy their experiments from a web interface and watch the progress in real time. They even have the ability to create one-way mirrors to observe the behavior of the participants in the virtual lab.

Almaatouq developed Empirica in collaboration with Nicolas Paton and some of the most storied thinkers in the digital world, including Sandy Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Group, and Joost Bonsen of the MIT D-Lab.