This summer, I worked with Professor Waller from the Psychology department on investigating the fundamental characteristics of callous-unemotional (CU) traits. CU traits are characterized by a lack of prosocial emotions, such as empathy or guilt, and can manifest themselves in children beginning at a young age. To develop targeted, effective interventions designed to alleviate CU traits in children, we first sought to understand CU traits along with related traits such as sadism and aggression.
I built two experiments using a software called Experiment Builder by SR Research. The first one was the Lab Electronic Aggression Paradigm (LEAP), in which 407 participants, recruited via MTurk, were presented with a virtual voodoo doll. They were instructed to envision the doll as someone in their life (a coworker, family member, or friend) who had caused them harm. Then, participants were assigned to one of three conditions that varied in how participants were required to make a choice about how to stick pins into the doll. In condition 1, they typed an integer between 0-51; in condition 2, they had to click anywhere on the doll to insert a pin (up to 30); and in condition 3, they had to click anywhere on the doll to insert a pin accompanied by a bloodstain graphic (up to 30). We found that across all three conditions higher aggression predicted inserting more pins, but the relationship was fully mediated by sadism.
The second experiment I built was the Choose a Video Experience (CAVE) task, in which participants were presented with a series of two commercial stills. There were three types of stimuli: Affiliative (showing affiliative interpersonal interactions), Neutral (neutral interactions), and Food. Participants were instructed to click on the still representing the video they most wanted to watch. Each video required a button pressing effort task to play and was randomly assigned to either the high-effort or low-effort condition. Participants knew the effort required to play each video before selecting one. We found that higher CU traits scores were correlated with a lower preference for affiliative stimuli.
Through my research experience, I became familiar with research tools such as Experiment Builder, Amazon Mechanical Turk (for piloting tasks), and Qualtrics (for administering surveys). An important skill I acquired was identifying and controlling for confounding factors. For example, we included many randomization techniques in CAVE to ensure that factors like saliency or race would not affect participants’ video selection. I also learned how to adapt to frequent adjustments in the experimental design process as new ideas were proposed to improve upon our current project.
As a psychology major, this experience helped familiarize me with the field’s research inquiry and task development process. Continuing in the Waller lab in the upcoming academic year, I am now ready to learn data analysis using tools like SPSS, collect and protect participant data, and write a paper. These skills will surely benefit me as I pursue numerous independent research opportunities as part of my major and apply for a graduate psychology degree.