Less than two weeks into college, Emily Adams got a phone call about a psychology study that could earn her $400. The caller told her he worked for an Oregon professor and asked her a series of questions in a voice she describes as "kind of passive and breathy" that had her reacting to the idea that women are smarter than men in increasingly convoluted scenarios involving suppressed feelings and black holes.
An hour and a half into the session, Adams decided to end the call. "[He asked me to] envision his brain and what I see in his brain and try to like conquer his brain... and I was like 'Uh, what the heck is this?' That was the point that I was just like, you know what, I don't feel comfortable with this and I hung up," she recalls.
The next morning, Adams found herself thinking that "wow, maybe this wasn't through the psychology department." She realized that neither the professor nor the building he supposedly worked in existed, so she e-mailed Lisa Cromer, the university's human subjects coordinator, to ask about the supposed study. Over the next few weeks, Cromer and other administrators would receive four more complaints about whom the campus has dubbed "the mystery caller."
In another bogus call, the faux researcher kept a student on the phone for 11 hours answering personal questions. In a third, he distressed a female graduate student when he referred to her and her three children by name. That call ended much sooner.
The specifics of each incident varied, says Lou Moses, acting head of the psychology department, but the impostor usually called as late as 11:30 p.m., asked inappropriate personal questions, and promised improbably high monetary compensation – up to $600 for a few hours. When it comes to psychology studies, the time-honored source of undergraduate pocket money, such lures "might make you not listen to your instincts," Cromer says. The department rarely doles out more than $10 hourly to study participants.
With student directories available online, college campuses like Oregon's are easy targets for serial prank callers, and officials say this one is probably not acting internally. "[He's] not really savvy," Cromer says. "He could have done a heck of a better job" by using a real researcher's name, for instance. Beyond tracing one of the calls to an answering service in Texas, the university's department of public safety has no leads in identifying the perpetrator.
The psychology department has informed students about the situation and changed how it runs studies. Now, researchers must e-mail participants a day before calling them, and assign experiment protocol numbers that they can use to verify the study.
This is not the first time Oregon's psychology department has been plagued by impostors. Earlier this year, a man was arrested for impersonating a professor. He had carried a briefcase around campus, chatted with students, and even arranged for one undergraduate to do her honors project in his nonexistent neuroscience lab. By the time officials discovered the hoax in April, she had to scramble to graduate. According to Cromer, the charlatan "was a local guy" who "was just lonely." Moses knows of no connection between the faculty wannabe and the mystery caller.
As for the prank calls' effect, Moses acknowledges that their incidence "has the potential to affect... people's willingness to participate." And their influence on results? "I'm not worried about that at all," says Cromer. If Adams is any indication, the department won't suffer much. Despite needing time to "feel comfortable" again, she participated in her first real study weeks after the bogus one. This time it involved choosing numbers in a paper and pencil test; instead of trying to conquer someone else's brain, she stayed safely within her own.