Duke grad students put flea market patrons under microscope

jneff@newsobserver.comApril 13, 2013 

— One can find most anything at the flea market at the N.C. State Fairgrounds: tie-dye dresses, snow cones, Confederate flag belt buckles, and even a ball and chain from San Quentin’s death row.

But it was the diversity of the bargain hunters and antiques aficionados that brought eight students and one professor from Duke University to the market Saturday.

They brought with them the world’s only mobile social science research lab and 3,600 $1 bills.

Researchers typically conduct their studies on campus and often recruit participants from the “subject pool” – students required to take part in studies as part of a class.

Students at an exclusive private university, however, don’t exactly reflect the population at large, which is why Duke Research Mobile set off for the flea market.

“We have all kinds at the flea market, a much wider population,” said Kate Diebels, a graduate student.

Diebels was hunting for couples to question about their partner’s annoying behaviors. The others – four more graduate students, two undergraduates and one post-doctoral student – were looking for subjects for four different studies.

The Research Mobile is the brainchild of Professor Mark Leary, a social psychologist who persuaded the National Science Foundation to pay to study people at the picket line or polling station.

The 40-foot Featherlite trailer is tricked out with five soundproof cubicles with computers and video equipment. Researchers can video and record experiments, and even monitor a subject’s heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and galvanic skin response.

On Saturday, the research was more low-tech: questionnaires.

‘It paid for my groceries’

Adam Bronski of Raleigh took part in the three studies for which he qualified: “I’m male, I’m over 18 and I’m breathing.”

Bronski was most interested by a study on how and why people acquire their attitudes on environmental matters such as fracking and climate change. He was also intrigued by other questions, including “Would you lie to someone to get your own way?”

“I feel like I’m contributing something here,” Bronski said. “And it paid for my groceries.”

Bronski pocketed $11 for three studies. The pay is based on a $12 an hour wage, which is scaled to how long each study takes.

John and Michele Siemasko each took away $6 for taking part in two studies on relationships designed by Diebels. She was looking at how partners react to annoying but often trivial behavior: not putting something back where it belongs, not admitting to a mistake, or ignoring a problem.

Diebels’ hypothesis is that partners may react disproportionately to trivial acts because the behavior violates abstract rules of a relationship such as consideration, honesty and dependability.

John Siemasko said tardiness is his pet peeve.

“I’m very loud when she’s late,” he said. “I get very annoyed.”

Michele Siemasko agreed. “He’s 15 minutes early for an appointment, and I’m five minutes late.”

The key thing, the Siemaskos agreed, was that they were both aware of this behavior.

“We are going to have our 25th wedding anniversary on May 21,” Michele said. “We know what each other is thinking.”

Neff: 919-829-4516

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