Updated on 02.22.16

How to Earn Money as a Human Lab Rat

Participating in paid research studies is a simple way to earn extra cash on the side.

When I was in college, I was always on the lookout for easy ways to make money. While some of my friends showed up to school before the semester started and made a killing prepping and cleaning dorm rooms, I scoured job boards looking for less intensive activities.

But my lazy, 19-year-old self wasn’t interested in most postings. I once sunk so low as to take down the number of a company promising to pay me “5,000 per month while sitting at home all day!” It was only after I got back to my dorm, excited to start getting rich, that it dawned on me that it must be a scam. I definitely sat at home all day, but I made zero dollars. 

Thankfully, a friend tipped me off to a great way to make side income: Being a human guinea pig. I was familiar with this concept, as my brother had once received hundreds of dollars for donating bone marrow. It turns out that you don’t have to donate bodily fluids to get paid to be a part of a research project. A much less invasive option involves signing up to participate in the psychology and business school studies run by a local university or research facility.

From my experience, you can make between $15 and $40 for an hour of your time. The first step is to locate a suitable study. This is surprisingly simple. It turns out there are a lot of curious researchers out there, and they are dying to find participants for their experiments. Because I was spending 99% of my time on Harvard’s campus, it made sense for me to take part in studies run by Harvard University. 

My friend sent me the links to their Psychology Study Pool and the Harvard Business School Computer Lab for Experimental Research (both of which are currently accepting new participants). I signed up, and within minutes I was presented with options to make money by showing up and taking part in experiments.

The great thing is, you don’t have to be a student to participate. For the vast majority of the studies, the only requirements are that you be 18 years or older and know how to use a computer. However, don’t get excited thinking that you’re going to enjoy all of your experiences.

For my first study, I had to stare at a blank computer screen and click my mouse every time a green square appeared on the black background. So, I sat there for an hour as different colored squares appeared on the screen. When a green one appeared, I clicked. It was boring, and I still have no idea what they were studying, but I got paid 15 bucks to essentially play a video game for an hour. It was the worst video game of all time, but hey, I got paid. 

people at computers through lens

Photo: Al Ibrahim

Thankfully, not all of the studies were that dull. Some of them not only generated a good bit of walking around money, they also taught me important life lessons. This was definitely the case with a business school study I participated in my junior year.

The goal was to solve as many simple multiplication problems as I could in one minute. There would be several rounds of questions. I was in a group of about 30 people, and we all sat in front of computers, chomping at the bit. The more answers we got correct, the more money we were to receive at the end of the study. I’m a competitive guy by nature, so this was right up my alley.

The clock started, and the problems began appearing on my screen. I typed in the answers with lightning speed. Three times five? Seven times eight? Are you kidding? I was knocking them down like Steph Curry shooting in warmups. Twelve times eight? I can do that in my sleep.

You know that scene in any movie about a math genius? Where they fill up a white board with their equations in a semi-manic state, because the knowledge is veritably flowing out of them and can’t be contained? Turns out you can feel that way, too — when the problems you’re solving only require a third-grade education. 

After the minute was up, the program prompted us to select how well we thought we performed in relation to the rest of the participants in the room. The options were top third, middle third, or bottom third. If we correctly selected our tier, we earned bonus money for that round. You can probably guess what I put. If I wasn’t among the top third after that masterful performance, the sky wasn’t blue. 

After making the selection, the computer told me my actual result: Bottom third. I couldn’t believe it. It had to have been a mistake. Before I could properly process the injustice, the next round had started. More of the same questions, more of the same excellent performance on my part. Once again, it asked me how I did. Once again, I thought I was in the top third. Maybe the system had worked out its glitch and would properly recognize my talent.

The result? Bottom third. I stole a glance around the room. Who were these math wizards I was competing against? I half expected to see 29 mathematics majors proudly displaying their Calculus Club hats, pointing at me and snickering. Nope. Just a bunch of regular Joes, mostly around my age, staring with blank looks at their monitors.

After the next round, I hedged a little. Maybe I was actually middle tier this time. The computer spit back its dismaying result: Bottom tier. Now, not only was my ego sufficiently bruised, my potential earnings from this experiment were dwindling as well.

After three rounds, I accepted my fate. In each of the remaining rounds, I did as well as I could so I got the small bonus for answering questions correctly, but I also acknowledged that I was in the bottom tier. When I went to collect my earnings at the end of the experiment, I felt a look of pity when they paid me out. It was all anonymous, but I felt like they knew. I was the dumbest person there. 

And yet, walking away, the experience felt liberating. It made me realize that you will generally be better off if you accept that you’re not necessarily the smartest person in the room. This would equal less stress and more money in the long run, and I’ve tried to keep that in mind ever since.

Now, there’s also the chance they may have been toying with me. Often the researchers don’t tell you the true ambitions of a study to keep the data unbiased as they manipulate different variables. They could have been studying the effect of negative feedback on future performance, for example. If someone is told they’ve done poorly on a series of questions, even if they actually did well, do they get discouraged and answer fewer questions correctly afterward?

The researchers are not required — nor even allowed, in some cases — to explain the significance of your actions within a given study, even after the fact. That’s what makes the data valuable to them.

While I haven’t done any of these studies in the years since I graduated, the opportunities are there if you live near a major research university. Some quick Googling reveals paid research subject opportunities at NYU in New York City, Northwestern in Chicago, The University of Maryland outside of Washington, D.C., UCLA in Los Angeles, and Texas State in San Marcos, Texas. Craigslist can be a resource as well. A search in the Boston area for “paid research” yielded 197 results.  

Joining even one study per weekend could easily generate an extra $100 per month. To get that kind of money while also occasionally learning a little about human nature is a nice opportunity.

No, it’s not going to earn you “$5,000 a month while sitting at home all day!” But, I once earned $40 for sitting in a classroom for 30 minutes and thinking of as many non-traditional ways to use a brick as I could. There aren’t many jobs that will pay you to do something that simple, so it could be worthwhile to seek them out in your area. 

Okay, fine: You still want to make $5,000 a month for sitting around all day? Well, some more intensive studies pay participants much, much more — but require a far bigger leap of commitment.

Sleep doctors, for example, are often looking to study the sleep habits of healthy people in a controlled environment. As of this writing, Harvard Medical School is seeking healthy nonsmokers aged 18-35 to participate in a 32-day sleep study — in exchange for up to $7,500. A similar, 37-day sleep study for 55- to 70-year-olds pays up to $10,125, while some shorter, 10-day studies pay about $2,000.

Mostly these studies just involve a lot of sitting around and reading, watching movies, performing some basic tests — and, of course, sleeping. The catch? You typically have to live on-site and can’t have contact with the outside world — no phones, no email, no news. You may not even have a clock to know what time it is, since they’re trying to study the nature of our natural sleep patterns in the absence of external cues, such as time of day.

That sounds unbearable to most people, including myself. But if you’re in a pinch for cash, don’t mind unplugging for awhile, and have no job or other impending responsibilities, you could make a pretty giant dent in your student loans in one month — especially if you can sublet your apartment for a month or rent it out on Airbnb.

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