Practical use of experiments in social research

There are many examples of experiments in scientific research, especially in cognitive or social psychology. The two examples below demonstrate how experiments can be used in social research. The first one – Moral Machine – uses a method of online data collection. In the second one – The Sacred Texts Experiment – experiments are one of the methods used.

Moral Machine

Based on:
  • E. Awad, S. Dsouza, R. Kim, J. Schulz, J. Henrich, A. Shariff, J. Bonnedon, I. Rahwan (2019), The Moral Machine Experiment, Nature via Open Research Exeter, 14 October.
  • Maxmen, A. (2018). Self-driving car dilemmas reveal that moral choices are not universal. Nature, 28 October.
  • Moral Machine,

Moral Machine is a project of a team affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The project is aimed to design autonomous vehicles driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI). Such cars might soon clog the roads. In case of an accident, they should act to limit damage, including victims. That is why autonomous vehicles should have a set of moral values programmed to make difficult road choices.

Morality has many sources, and everyone might have different moral values. That is why the research team decided to investigate the moral choices of people worldwide concerning choices made on a road in case of an accident. Around 40 million people participated in the inquiry. Although, it is possible to conduct such a study traditionally through a questionnaire, the number of possible choices and combinations would be too high. That is why the team prepared an online tool that generated different scenarios for a large group of participants (a sample).

Moral Machine is a platform that generates different scenarios on the road, and in each case the driver had to drive into at least one living being. S/he had to choose who would die and who would live after the accident. The scenarios differed according to 9 sets of criteria: humans vs animals, vehicle's route (stay on the road vs drive into a hurdle), type of victim (passengers vs passers-by), their number, gender, age, ability, and social status. The research team analysed the respondents' choices and differences in answers by demographic profile and culture.

Questions for reflection:

  • Why did so many people decide to participate in this experiment?
  • Read the passage on how culture impacts moral choices. Why do you think culture matters in the case of morality?

Sacred Texts Experiment

Based on: H. Grzymała-Moszczyńska, A. Anczyk, A. Maćkowiak (2017), The Sacred Texts Experiment: Images of Religious Others and their Role in Forming Attitudes towards Accepting Muslim Refugees in Poland. Studia Migracyjne – Przegląd Polonijny, 3(165): 109–130.

The study is authored by three researchers from HEIs in Cracow (Poland). They wanted to investigate how Polish people perceive Islam and whether it relates to their attitudes towards refugees. The research sample included 31 respondents, and the research methods include semi-structured interviews and an experiment. The experiment was a quiz: respondents had to link quotations from three holy scriptures to  scriptures (the Bible, Quran and Bhagavad-Gita). The quotes were chosen so that those from the Bible referred to violence, while those from the Quran to the values attributed to democratic societies. After the respondents learned their results in the quiz, the interviews started. The quiz has been a trigger for a conversation and emotions.

The study aimed to answer the following questions (p. 111):

  • Based on what criteria do respondents attribute the quotations to a particular culture or religion?
  • What are the characteristics of the 'Other'? How their religious affiliation impacts the image of the 'Other'?
  • What is the knowledge of the respondents about the holy scriptures?
  • What stereotypes do the 'Other' have? What are the implications of these stereotypes?

The research tool was a set of 6 quotations from 3 holy scriptures (see pp. 111-112). After attributing the quotations to the scriptures, respondents were asked about their reasoning. Then, they were informed about the correct answers. The next set of questions in the interview was about attitudes to Islam, refugees, new religious movements, and religion. Researchers selected 2 groups of respondents – young people and adults – to see whether age impacts their attitudes. No significant differences appeared.

The data was analysed quantitatively only regarding the number of correct answers. The qualitative analysis was focused on thematic analysis and followed the rules of grounded theory. Researchers believed that starting with a quiz made respondents more open to the interview than having only a questionnaire. This openness was visible in the interactions between respondents and researchers. In some cases, respondents got irritated after learning the correct answers and even accused the researchers of manipulation. Others indicated that the Bible has to be read in a historical context (which they did not mention in the case of the Quran). In other words, the quiz proved to be an essential part of the whole research process.

    Questions for reflection:

    • Can the researchers provoke emotions in respondents? Under what circumstances?  What should researchers take into consideration to anticipate some emotional reaction?
    • What kind of aim might motivate the researchers to use an experiment as one of the research methods? What happens if they used only one research method?
    • Think about a study in which you can use an experiment as one of the research methods. Describe it.