My mortal enemy

My mortal enemy

Chronically-broke Bwogger Nadra Rahman decided to trudge over to Uris to get in on that sweet Behavioral Lab action, with mixed results. You can rest assured she will never live off the grid.

It started off pretty innocently. I wrote my name on a sheet of paper, received a stress ball in the shape of a brain, and hurried off to my SusDev recitation, not quite sure what I had signed up for. A week later, I received an email in my inbox giving me my login information, an identifying 6-digit code, and a digest of all the studies that were happening that week.

Until that point, the idea of doing lab studies for money had been an abstraction, almost a Platonic ideal as far as college money-making schemes go. But suddenly, it wasn’t the stuff of movies or novels, but of my own life. I decided to give it a go, but on a single condition: I would try to use only the money I made from studies to fund my lifestyle.

It was an absurd proposition—studies might pay an average of $16 an hour, but you’re usually there for 15 minutes. You can make anywhere from $4 – $12 for a brief study, and that’s not enough to offset the cost of anything. I knew all this going in, but thought that this kind of constraint would force me to turn to asceticism, that I would eschew my bad financial hygiene and live a life of simplicity and tranquility. I didn’t really need the extreme budget: I do work-study and have a healthy amount of my own money in my bank account. I did it because I wanted to see if I could, and especially to see if I could abandon my four am stress-shopping habit.

Divorced from the budget aspect, the experience was strange and a little surreal. Most experiments take place in the basement of Uris, which can only be entered from an obscured side entrance; it feels forbidden and more than a little secret, especially because you have to swipe your CUID to enter. Of course, it gets weirder once you start the experiments. Each one made me feel like I was doing something terribly wrong. I would try to solve puzzles that just did not have answers, and when the researcher asked me if I thought something was suspicious about the experiment, I just smiled and murmured “no.” Why didn’t I tell him that his test was stupid and wrong (or that I was stupid and wrong)? I took tests where I would be rewarded (in cash) if I chose the wrong answer, but I, for some unfathomable reason, always chose the right answer. Why?? Am I that good a person? That desperate to always be right? At one point, I took a test about budgeting, and laughed at the irony.

It felt like I wasn’t quite in on the joke, which is to be expected if you’re a subject in a research experiment. But it was a rush, to walk through the hallways of that basement, my head spinning, a little confused but mostly comforted by the crisp dollar bills in my pocket. As another participant put it, it was a “mind-fuck.” I don’t regret having done it.

As it turns out, the budget was a failure. Over the course of three weeks I participated in four studies, which netted me a whopping grand total of $20. One of the “studies” was really a survey, and I didn’t win the $150 gift card, so it’s more like $20 for three studies. Considering they took up less than one hour altogether, it’s not a bad hourly rate. I fully believe that it is possible to live off $20 for three weeks—I’m sure I’ve done it myself, unintentionally. But during these three weeks I decided to buy a ton of MetroCard rides, tickets to the performances of multiple student groups, halal, and perhaps most inexcusably, totally unnecessary boots, the purchase of which was fueled by indecision over my prospective major.

Okay, so the budget didn’t work out. I was bad at sticking to limits when I knew I had money in my bank account, there just aren’t enough studies at the Behavioral Lab to net any more money, and I’m just an awful person. I learned a lot about my willpower over the course of my own behavioral experiment.

Here are the results of my experiment in a clearer form:

Money Earned: $20
Money Spent: an embarrassingly large amount

That being said, I think participating in the studies was worthwhile, and if you approach them as a way to earn a few dollars for halal every now and then, you won’t feel as anxiety-ridden as I did during these three weeks. If you do decide to go for a budget, actually write out your expenses so you can embarrass yourself. Be better at it then I was. But I don’t suggest it, unless you’re going for something really extreme. Instead, sit back, relax, and enjoy the mind-fuck.

(For those of you who want an additional lab-based source of income, check out the Columbia Experimental Laboratory for Social Sciences, which is evidently better paying.)