Experiment recruitment: Why people don’t turn up

If you have run experiments with people as part of your research, you’ll know that recruiting participants can be a tough job. Even trickier is maximising the likelihood that those participants will actually show up to their assigned slot. It’s no fun to wait all day for participants that never arrive.

In the past year, I have run two experiments where I’ve had to recruit student participants. In the first, a pilot study (which is like a smaller, practice, dress-rehearsal style study), lots of people signed up, but quite a few failed to turn up to the session. In the second, I put a number of plans in place to make sure that didn’t happen again. SPOILER: Those plans worked pretty well.

And so, I am presenting you with two posts, which will hopefully prevent any of you from sitting in an experimental room alone and participant-less. Today’s post will look at what stops people from turning up to experimental sessions. The next will give some advice on what you can do about that.

Why don’t people turn up?

When a participant doesn’t arrive for your study, a number of potential reasons swirl through your head. Are they late? Did you give them the wrong time? Has something awful happened? The first time I had two no-shows in a row, I wondered if some sort of portal to another world had opened up outside of the building. This was probably overly dramatic.

In reality, it seems like there are two main reasons for why people fail to come to experimental sessions:

1. They forget

It’s easy to forget something if it isn’t written down in the place where you need to see it. Even if it is written down, the piece of paper may be lost, or the online calendar may not synchronise properly. These things happen. The blame for forgetting doesn’t fall solely on the participant’s side – if you (as the experimenter) don’t contact them to confirm their slot, they may never consider it a firm arrangement.

2. Something else comes up

Reasons for participating in experiments vary: Sometimes it might be purely out of interest, or altruism, but more often than not (especially with a student population), it’s because of the compensation that’s received after the experiment (usually vouchers or cash). But sometimes things will come up that are more important than that money.

Say, you’re going to get £7 for an hour. But then you realise that you’re late with your coursework. You need that hour more than you need £7. So you don’t turn up.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t take into consideration how important that hour is for the experimenter.  The room may only be available for a limited amount of time, and all the participants have to be seen in that time. Fewer participants mean that working with the data might be more difficult, and it may not be possible to use the tests you’d originally planned.

Why don’t people tell you they’re not going to turn up?

As an experimenter, I have no problem if someone wants to cancel their session. If someone gets in touch in advance, and says they will no longer be able to attend, there are zero hard feelings. I don’t even need a reason. Obviously, the more notice is better. That way you can arrange for another participant to come instead. It’s not great receiving a cancellation email or text two minutes before the allotted time. But you know what, it’s so much better than never receiving any correspondence at all. At least, then, you can do something with that experimental slot, rather than sitting, nervously, wondering if someone is going to arrive twenty minutes late.

So why don’t people just tell you they can’t make it?

1. They forget

Look, if they’ve forgotten the experiment was even happening, they’re probably not going to remember to let you know. However, if they remember at the last minute…

2. They are pretending it isn’t happening (out of sight, out of mind)

It’d be pretty embarrassing to forget about an experiment until the last moment. There is the worry that if you contact the experimenter, you’ll receive a message in return, rebuking you for your behaviour. It may seem easier to just pretend that it isn’t happening. Similarly, even if you have plenty of notice to cancel, you may be wrestling with your decision to do something else instead. It may feel like you’re letting someone down, and maybe you should still go to the experiment. But things slide, and you can’t make it. And by then, it’s too embarrassing to get in touch. And thus, an empty experimental slot is born.

Next time…

We’ll look at some methods I used to keep my experimental schedule as full as possible, and to minimise no-shows…


If I could give one piece of advice (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago (when I started writing this post, it was “last week”…), I posed a question on Twitter:

If you could give one piece of advice to a new PhD student, what would it be?

You see, I’d already decided what my advice would be, and I was really interested to hear what other people thought. I had more replies than I expected! Thank you @OKLibrarian, @BVLSingler, @Peter_Tennant, @LaurenKnifton, @StinaMary, @Bohr_research, @evalantsoght, @JessicaMcdnld, @DrHelenKara, and @AmandaMichelle for your responses.

Answers fell into two main categories:
1) Health, wellbeing, and support
2) Writing advice

In this post, I’ll share the health, wellbeing, and support replies. Why? If years of watching Neighbours taught me anything, it’s that people love a cliffhanger. No, really it’s just that it’d be far too long a post. I’ll share the writing advice in a later post.

Health, wellbeing, and support

In the competitive world of academia, it often seems like working all hours is a badge of honour. Indeed, of those who do work constantly, it seems a further boast to not be achieving what was hoped for. PhD stress duelling is no joke. As such, I was greatly encouraged to read tweets advising new students to take care of themselves:

“Remember to put yourself first. You can’t finish the PhD if you’re not well – in all realms”

“don’t work weekends. Time off is just as important as time in the office/lab.”

Heed these tweets. You can exist without your PhD, but it cannot exist without you. Be kind to yourself. If you consistently overwork yourself, you will end up having a longer, more difficult recovery than if you treat yourself well throughout the PhD. Yes, this may seem unnatural, in the face of the Great Postgraduate Stress Competition (GPGSC?!), but it is better for you.

Equally pleasing were tweets recommending that students develop a good support network:

“Find someone that you can talk to when you are ‘down’ . If possible someone in the same situation”

“Make & Keep phd & non-phd friends. Make time for them. This will keep you sane(r)”

A PhD can be lonely at times. Those not doing a PhD can sympathise, but may not understand, and it can seem hard to discuss successes and failures with someone in the same position as you.
But try. I’ve been delighted by friends’ and peers’ responses to both.
The final tweet in this section embodies one of my life philosophies:

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help: the only stupid question is the one that doesn’t get asked.”

I have always been THAT PERSON, academically and socially. I really like to understand things, and would much rather ask the question than nod along and be caught out later. I was new to Clinical Psychology when I started my PhD, but this just gave me a reason to voice the questions that everyone else seemed to be wondering. It was easy to be the “stupid” one, because there were lower expectations for me.

Do you have any advice for those who may be starting their PhDs? Let me know in the comments section, or on Twitter (I’m @ellenspaeth). Happy researching and writing!