ADJOURNED 'til Wednesday at 11 a.m. (Informal)
ADJOURNED 'til Thursday at 11 a.m. (Formal)


By Craig Sandler

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 21, 2019....The basement of the Boston University Communication Research Center, where the phone banks and focus-group space used to be, contains a room that doesn't exist. Or does it?

Both. You walk into this nondescript beige academic space and there's a table, and on the table is a virtual reality headset and a computer. There's stackable chairs on the left, an observation-room window behind you, a door, another standard-issue work table on your right. Also in the room are Jim Cummings and Mina Tsay-Vogel, the center's directors, and Anne Danehy, a pollster.

You slip the VR rig on, and there's the table and the chairs and the door and so on. It's exactly like the real room, at every angle, with every move. You turn to tell Anne and Mina how incredible this is, how can this be? - but - a shock - where did they go? They’ve disappeared! But, wait, no they haven't. The real Jim and Mina and Anne are still standing quite close by. But your brain has forgotten that reality in a millisecond, and never can quite reconcile their presence - the existence of reality - with the other reality in front of you. Their voices are coming out of nowhere. You're experiencing the virtual reality rendition of the reality you're experiencing.

So that’s what that room is like. The CRC is kind of a weird place.

It's not just there to freak out journalists. The point of the Multipurpose Research Room (in both real and VR incarnations), and the Naturalistic Research Area, and the Data Analysis and Coding Lab, is to study how people respond to media - including responses of which the subjects themselves may be unconscious. The CRC increasingly uses biometrics - heart rate, blood pressure, eye movements, galvanic skin response - to test engagement and reaction.

In the old days - say, five years ago - people would be asked to report their own responses, turning feedback dials as they watched a political ad, for instance; or an app to report their decisionmaking as they strolled a supermarket aisle; or in a focus group.

Those are all still used, and by the CRC, but today its researchers record the involuntary responses of target audiences, like galvanic skin response (electrical resistance, which can indicate stress or emotional engagement, or the lack thereof). "We are interested in not just what your mouth says, but what the rest of your body is saying," is how Cummings puts it.

The point is to transcend the subjective, at least in the reporting of response - to transcend bias. It's the path to a new era of higher accuracy in measuring psychological impact.

So - let's take a test. Does a story in the N.Y. Times hit you hardest if you read it, if you immerse in 360-degree photos on a web browser, or if you experience it on a VR platform such as Oculus?

Cummings sits you down at a desk with a computer monitor. The researchers recently removed a vibrant painting on the wall behind the desk, just to be sure the art didn't shift the mood of test participants. Similarly, they have to be careful about what they wear; clothing with a slogan or any other message, for instance, is verboten. Again, it could bias their subjects.

Anyhow, Cummings wraps a small plastic box on your wrist and you watch a Times piece on displaced refugee children, then pick up an ipad and answer a series questions about your level of engagement and agreement with the content.

But -- what you say on the ipad is one thing, and what the Shimmer 3 galvanic skin response sensor on your finger is another. The response could be very different ... or not. The point is, the Communication Research Center wants to paint the most accurate picture of what people pay attention to, what keeps them engaged, and what arouses them psychologically. On a parallel track, as an academic center, the CRC also studies which high-tech methods of measuring engagement work best.

Tsay-Vogel, co-director of the center, said it has three main constituencies - students, faculty, and clients from the private and public sectors - and they're all fundamentally interested in the same question: "What processes do people go through when they receive a media message?," as she puts it. And its corollary: "What messages make the most impact?"

Tsay-Vogel said those questions fascinated her so much it changed her career course. She was in TV news, on the promotion side, already involved with the enterprise of engaging audiences and influencing their media-consumption behavior. She obviously wanted to know if her promos were as effective as they could be. And she's a TV junkie herself, who developed a taste for reality TV as it was getting hot. "My passion really developed around the area of, what keeps people interested in these shows?" she said. She channeled it into academic work, a professorship, published journal research, and now her directorship.

Her goals for the CRC are the same as media clients for their messages: increase its impact. It's hired a full-time lab and research manager, and both she and Cummings are out to increase the number of CRC fellowships, increasing the volume of research and analysis on messages and media psychology. Tsay-Vogel said she defines media psychology as "understanding the processes that people go through when they are engaging in media messages ... and the effects of messages on people." And increasingly, those effects are best measured with the metrics of involuntary response.

Danehy, an experienced pollster and CRC fellow, said she's surprised so many political and communications consultants still rely exclusively on the old more bias-prone, subjectivity-prone methods of measuring whether their ads, speeches, tweets and posts are having the intended impact.

"Everything is about creating emotional connections with people. Brands have so many opportunities to connect with people one on one - targeted ads, social media, blogs, email - and people respond to messages on an emotional level. Most of the decisions we make are on a subconscious level … especially about politicians and campaigns.

"Emotional connections with voters are really where it's at, and that's what's missing from our traditional polling," Danehy said.

But so far, the would-be users she works with in the political and public sectors are late adopters, "Not wanting to do something that's different," Danehy said. "Brands are doing this, but I think campaigns that should be doing it, aren't."

Campaigns for offices like lieutenant governor and treasurer should be especially apt adopters of the deep-level testing technology, Danehy thinks. "Those offices are really difficult to poll (accurately) for," she said. "Voters don't really know what those offices do; they usually evaluate by, 'they seem like a strong leader' or 'they seem likeable.' It's all about image. So by testing unconscious reactions, you can do shorter surveys and spend less money on your polling."

That take pleases Tsay-Vogel. "We publish in journals, but all of our research is applied. It points to practical uses." At the same time, researchers at the CRC, as academicians, are gathering data about gathering data - and their studies are confirming the high value of the newer, more esoteric metrics.

"Asking is simply not as good as watching," Cummings says. "People are a puzzle; these are all pieces."


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