A research participant and RA engage in a video chat

The Center for Decision Research’s PIMCO Decision Research Lab continues to conduct world-class empirical research—but has transformed itself during the COVID-19 shutdown into a virtual lab in order to help advance the scientific understanding of human behavior.

For leading research universities like the University of Chicago, the COVID-19 shutdown disrupted one of its primary missions: the advancement of scientific knowledge.

For scientists whose work requires interacting with human subjects, the opportunity to be in close proximity to research participants disappeared in an instant, as nonessential university spaces closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The sudden inability of scientists to conduct the experiments at the heart of their investigations threatened to grind to a halt their research publications, and the advancement of scientific discoveries.

In the first week of March, scientists at the Center for Decision Research (CDR) at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business were conducting studies at their campus lab, a downtown location, and at a pop-up location at Chicago’s Union Station when they received instructions to stop work immediately and isolate at home, as the realities of COVID-19 became increasingly clear.

In response to this crisis, the Center for Decision Research has successfully transformed its in-person operations, the PIMCO Decision Research Laboratories, into a virtual laboratory space.

After three months in operation, more than 2,500 unique participants have taken studies in the Virtual Lab, completing 12,000 study sessions. In an average week, the Virtual Lab engages three times more participants than the in-person labs did a year ago, while maintaining the same high standards for data quality.

Experiments and Insights

The Center for Decision Research produces world-class behavioral science insights that shape public policy and are regularly featured in leading academic journals and popular press. The engine that drives this innovative scholarship is the center’s PIMCO Decision Research Laboratories, a behavioral science research unit that engages students and community members in interactive experiments. Traditionally, this high-quality research has been conducted in-person at a lab on the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus, as well as via pop-up labs at museums, parks, cafes, and other public spaces throughout the Chicago area.

However, the coronavirus derailed normal lab operations earlier this year. Many of the CDR’s faculty study social interactionexpressing gratitude, interacting with strangers, random acts of kindness—so studies often involve participants connecting with one another in close quarters.

How could the lab safely conduct its distinctive interactive studies in the era of social distancing?

CDR Faculty Director Nicholas Epley“I’ve just been amazed at how well our transition to the virtual lab has gone,” said Nicholas Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Faculty Director of the Center. “I feared it was the end of productive research as we know it in the CDR. I could not have been more wrong. Everyone leapt to meet the challenge. Our staff worked relentlessly to develop new skills and solve completely new problems. Their teamwork and cooperation could be used as a case study in some of our management classes. Our researchers have been really creative in adapting their experiments to this new environment, allowing testing of the same hypotheses and in some cases even enabling testing of new hypotheses that would have been hard to do in our traditional laboratory environment. Much of my own research involves having people engage in direct conversation. This has proven even easier to do through our virtual environment than it had been before, because it’s easier to bring people together at the same time. I couldn’t be happier with how this has gone.”

Launching the Virtual PIMCO Lab

To ensure the safety of research participants and staff, the CDR suspended in-person lab operations in early March, with Director of Lab Operations Becky White leading the transition.

Rebecca White“From the moment we shuttered our physical labs on March 10th in light of growing concerns about COVID-19, our labs team began channeling their creative energy towards designing a mechanism through which we could continue conducting leading-edge behavioral science research,” explained White. “We wouldn’t be satisfied with simply distributing links to surveys for participants to complete, and instead immediately began experimenting with how we might be able to conduct highly engaging and interactive studies online, using the same types of research designs we would typically conduct in-person, using the Zoom web conferencing platform.”

Moving the lab online involved several hurdles, including figuring out how to compensate online participants and ensuring data quality in the virtual space. But the largest challenge was adopting a platform, Zoom, not intended for research studies, and designing protocols and creative solutions to use features in Zoom to recruit participants and run studies that normally require real-time interpersonal interactions.

In early April, just four weeks after pausing in-person operations, the CDR launched the PIMCO Decision Research Virtual Lab, which conducts studies using online surveys and video chat software.

To help ensure reliable data is collected, participants are required to complete prerequisite studies that demonstrate basic computer skills and the technical requirements to participate in a video chat.

While several research institutions conduct online surveys, the CDR is the first behavioral science lab in the country to conduct empirical, interactive studies using Zoom. This allows the CDR to serve the research interests of its faculty and students, while creating a sense of community and connection between participants.

The Unexpected Benefits of Online Research  

Though transitioning the labs to an online environment required time, effort, and creative problem-solving, the Virtual Lab offers several advantages over a traditional lab space. The CDR’s labs were previously accessible only to those in the Chicago area, but the Virtual Lab has expanded to engage a global participant pool. Taking studies online can also be more convenient for participants, eliminating commute times, parking headaches, and transit costs. And many of the lab’s studies are available on-demand, allowing participants to complete studies on their own schedule.

Because of these advantages, the Virtual Lab quickly outpaced the number of participants and studies of its physical locations. Since launching, the Virtual Lab is averaging more than 600 participants per week. During this same period last year, just 175 participants visited the physical labs in an average week.

To-date, more than 2,400 participants have completed the prerequisites required to take studies, and the community is growing rapidly.

The Virtual Lab studies explore concepts like:

  • The power of compliments
  • Navigating partisan divides
  • How remote learning has changed study habits
  • Social connection on social media

Amy Boonstra“The CDR labs team improvised like jazz musicians,” said Amy Boonstra, the Center’s executive director. “They pioneered new behavioral science practices in uncharted territory and swiftly built a virtual infrastructure to collect high-quality data in unconventional ways with a strong collaborative spirit. The Lab team embraced these uncertain times and discovered fertile ground for data collection in a virtual environment. We commend our phenomenal labs director, managers and research assistants.”

The Virtual Lab will continue to grow and improve, operating for the foreseeable future. The CDR plans to re-open its Hyde Park and Pop-Up Labs as soon as it is safe to do so, operating alongside the Virtual Lab.

Join the Virtual PIMCO Lab

If you would like to help advance behavioral science from the comfort and safety of home, sign up for the Virtual Lab. Participants are compensated in Amazon e-gift cards at a rate of $12/hour. To learn more about participation, visit the Virtual Lab web page.


About the Center for Decision Research

The Center for Decision Research (CDR) is a dynamic community of behavioral scientists who examine the processes by which intuition, reasoning, and social interaction produce beliefs, judgments, and choices. As part of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the CDR is home to faculty whose accolades include the Nobel Prize and MacArthur Fellowship. The Center for Decision Research conducts world-class behavioral science research, mentors the next generation of leading scholars and practitioners, and serves as an intellectual hub for the discipline—advancing scientific discovery as well as public awareness of behavioral science’s positive impact at both the individual and societal level.

The Center for Decision Research is home to the PIMCO Decision Research Laboratories, where behavioral scientists collect robust and replicable data on human judgment and decision-making.

The PIMCO Decision Research Laboratories at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business Center for Decision Research enable academics to conduct the highest impact behavioral science experiments where people live and work. Through this innovative partnership with the University of Chicago, PIMCO supports diverse and robust research that contributes to a deeper understanding of human behavior and decision-making and helps empower leaders to make wiser choices in business and society.