Posted by: Gabriele Paolacci | May 22, 2015

IT’S A TRAP! Instructional manipulation checks prompt increased systematic thinking on “tricky” tasks

Guest post by David J. Hauser

In this new article, Norbert Schwarz and I show in two experiments that answering an instructional manipulation check (IMC) changes the way participants approach later survey questions.

IMCs are often included in online research (and especially on MTurk) in order to assess whether participants are paying attention to instructions. However, participants can potentially see them as “trick” questions that violate conversational norms of trust. As a result, these questions may make participants more cautious when answering later questions in an effort to avoid being tricked again.

Two studies provided support for this hypothesis. In one study, participants received an IMC and the Cognitive Reflection Test (Frederick, 2005), a math test assessing the tendency to reflect and correct intuitive answers. Crucially, half of the participants completed the IMC before the CRT, whereas the other half completed the math test first. Completing the IMC first increased CRT scores (vs when the CRT came first), suggesting it increased systematic thinking.

In a second study, participants received an IMC and a probabilistic reasoning task assessing rational decision making (Toplak, West, & Stanovich, 2011). Like before, half of the participants completed the IMC before the reasoning task, whereas the other half completed the reasoning task first. Completing the IMC first increased accuracy on the reasoning task (compared to completing the reasoning task first). Thus, answering an IMC teaches participants that there may be more than meets the eye to later questions, a conclusion that significant alters participants’ reasoning strategies.

IMCs are typically conceptualized as measures, not interventions. However, as demonstrated here, this is not the case. One should therefore exercise caution in IMC use.

References:

Frederick, S. (2005). Cognitive reflection and decision making. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19, 25-42.

Toplak, M. E., West, R. F., & Stanovich, K. E. (2011). The Cognitive Reflection Test as a predictor of performance on heuristics-and-biases tasks. Memory & Cognition39, 1275-1289.

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Responses

  1. Thank you for doing this research. A while ago I decided against excluding participants who failed a subtle check, though I ranked them lower when selecting participants to invite for the next study. Maybe I should stop asking.


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