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Conceptual Replications: Risk Aversion in Judgements and Decision-Making using VR Software

2662 words (11 pages) Essay in Psychology

08/02/20 Psychology Reference this

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Our study aimed to see how a conceptual replication would be carried out using concepts from the theory of risk aversion in judgements and decision making originally theorised by Kahneman and Tversky (1979). In order to do this 198 participants from the University of Leeds were obtained through volunteering themselves after learning about the experiment at a lecture. This study involved them using VR software to pick one out of two spheres by reaching for it with their hand. One of the spheres was much more difficult to reach meaning it was riskier for the participants as they needed to hit as many spheres as they could in order to raise their score. The participants were given the incentive of monetary gain for the three highest scores. From collecting descriptive statistics and carrying out a Levenes test and an independent t test we found that there was a significant increase in how risky someone was likely to be the more control they thought they had. These results provide further support for the underlying theory and could possibly allow for other theories to be conceptually replicated in the future. This means that more psychological theories would have greater validity and could be used in everyday life to help people.


In the recent years, psychologists have struggled with the Replication Crisis which is when they fail to replicate the same or similar findings of already published research. Replications allow for greater validity to findings and makes them easier to generalise to larger populations (Cherry, 2018). Many, psychologists believe that in order to build strong foundations for theories and results replications are imperative, especially direct replications. Direct replications involve the study being replicated using exactly the same scientific method as the original study. They have been labelled as being able to overcome the replication crisis. However, there are many issues linked to direct replications such as, some theories depending on and relating to the time period they are carried out in, such as research on flashbulb memories. This type of research usually involves asking individuals about a specific, emotional event which the study is based on. A specific example of flashbulb memory research that may be difficult to replicate was done by Hornstein, Brown and Mulligan (2003) who looked at people’s memory of Princess Diana’s death. 

Alternatively, when trying to replicate basic research (which is when they focus on a theory instead of a specific result) it may be more beneficial to conduct a conceptual replication. This type of replication involves psychologists operationalising theoretical variables using different manipulations and measures to the original research. These replications have been regarded as being key to see the limits of generalisability. Nussbaum (2015) believes that conceptual replications are a useful way to test a hypothesis in different ways so that we can make sure we are testing the actual theory allowing us to be more confident in it. By being more confident in some theories this leads the way for theoretical progression in psychology to made through experiments (Strickland, 2016).

In order to see the effects for ourselves we used a well-known theory within psychology on risk aversion in judgements and decision-making, initially created by Kahneman and Tversky (1979) and created a conceptual replication using the ideas involved. Their theory outlined the idea that when someone is faced with 2 choices of equal value and when outcomes are uncertain they will typically choose the less risky option of achieving it. In order to create this theory their original research was done using buttons and a target (one of which was harder to hit and therefore riskier) and they wanted to see how many times individuals would try and hit the riskier target by pushing that button. The general results found indicated that participants were more likely to go for the less risky one in order to gain the better reward, meaning they are more likely to be risk averse rather than risk seeking. It is so widely accepted in psychology due to it being replicated many times, one example being done by Ert and Erev (2011) looking into loss aversion. However, recently McDougle, Boggess, Crossley, Parvin, Ivry and Taylor (2016) found opposite results when they conducted a novel manipulation by converting the selection process of the targets into a motor action. This motor action involved the participants reaching for the target giving them an increased sense of control which resulted in the participants opting for the riskier target more frequently due to their belief that they could control the outcome. To test this theory ourselves we created a conceptual replication and hypothesised that the riskiness score for the participants with full control would be significantly higher than the scores of the participants who had no control over the outcome.



Participants: 198 participants were involved in this study who were all students from the University of Leeds. They were obtained through volunteer sampling by one of their lecturers advertising the study and asking people to sign up. The average age of the participants was 19.66 years and the ratio of men to women within the sample was 24:174. 93 of these participants took part in condition 1 (control) and the other 105 participants took part in condition 2 (no control). There were no exclusion criteria involved in recruiting participants and the only inclusion criteria was that they were undergraduates at the University of Leeds.


Design: This study was carried out as an independent groups design where 2 separate groups of participants took part in only one condition each. As the aim of the study was to see if there was a difference in riskiness depending on whether the participants had control or not it was an experimental design. This meant that the independent variable was the level of control they had and the dependent variable was their riskiness score.


Materials: During the study the participants used Virtual Reality (VR) software in order to reach for the targets.


Procedure: The participants were informed about this experiment by one of their lecturers and were told they could sign up online if they wanted to get involved. If they consented to the study, once signed up they received an email containing information about what they would be required to do. The study was carried out by participants individually in a computer lab at the university as part of the student’s research skills practical. Participants were told that the experiment was to investigate human decision making in the context of motor control. For this experiment researchers followed the methods of Brookes, Warburton, Alghadier, Mushtaq and Mon-Williams’s (2018) with permission from the original authors (See appendix, item 1 for image).  In the experiment participants were given a VR headset and asked to move their hand towards a red circle in the centre of the screen. Following this, they were then asked to select one of two spheres presented to them on their left and right. In order to select one the participants had to swipe through them. This movement was repeated many times throughout the experiment and resulted in either them hitting the sphere or missing it. Hitting the star gave them the opportunity to gain a reward as there would either be a star inside adding to their collective point total or nothing inside. During this experiment one sphere was found to be much more difficult to hit than the other and the individuals were told to hit the sphere they believed was more likely to give them a star. Their actions were motivated by the possibility of monetary gain as the experiment was advertised with the highest scores being rewarded with money.

In order for this study to be ethical, consent was gained from the participants when they signed up for the study and they were also given the chance to withdraw their data through a survey presented to them at the end of the study. This survey had no influence on the results and simply acted as a debrief for the participants. All of the participants who took part in this study were also anonymous as they were numbered in the results instead of including any personal details. Prior to the study ethical approval was also gained from the School of Psychology Ethics Board.



Using our results from both conditions we were able to gain descriptive statistics of means and standard error of the means (SE). We then created a bar chart in order to display this data (see figure 1) and this showed a difference between the full control (mean = 85.20, SE = 0.85) and no control (mean = 67.75, SE = 1.21) conditions. Due to this perceived difference an independent t test was conducted to investigate it as well as a Levenes test. The Levene’s test for homogeneity of variance was statistically significant (F = 26.78, p = 0.00) which means that equal variances cannot be assumed. Following this the independent t test found that there was a significant difference (t=11.77, p < 0.01) between the level of control someone had and how risky they are willing to be. In this investigation a one-tailed p value was used due to a strong prediction of the direction of the effect.

Figure 1 – A bar chart to show means of the control and no control group in terms of their riskiness score in the experiment. The error bars on the graph represent the standard error around the means for each condition.



For this study we set out to create a conceptual replication for the theory of risk aversion in judgements and decision making. This replication was done by using aspects of both Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979) original work and McDougle, Boggess, Crossley, Parvin, Ivry and Taylor’s (2016) novel findings. From analysing the results, the test supported our hypothesis as it showed that the more control someone has over a perceived outcome the more likely they are to be riskier in their decisions. This can be seen through the means for the full control group as they had a much higher mean compared to the no control group which suggests that they were more likely to be risky in this experiment. This then allows the no control group to be labelled as risk averse and the full control group to gain the label of risk seeking. A conceptual replication was chosen for this experiment as opposed to a direct replication so that psychologists would be able to gain more confidence in the underlying theory of risk aversion and avoid the issues associated with direct replications. Crandall and Sherman (2016) would argue that conceptual replications are particularly important in social psychological experiments as the topic area involved focuses on culture, language and the ever-shifting experience of participant populations meaning that a direct replication would be very difficult, sometimes even impossible to do. It could be argued that a conceptual replication was successfully conducted in this experiment as the variables measured and manipulated (control and riskiness) do relate to the concepts in the underlying theory but in an alternative way to how it was originally studied. A conceptual replication for this study enabled researchers to study the concepts involved using modern technology (VR) and in a way that the participants may actively engage in today as opposed to the original methods done in the 70s.

However, some issues with this study is that it is an independent groups design which means that there is the possibility of having individual differences influence the results. For example, this limitation in research has been extremely influential in some areas such as perception studies and was even investigated by Partos, Cropper and Rawlings (2016) who looked at individual differences in perception of meaning.

It was important for this study to be conducted as it has many wider implications in real life. For example, Spacey (2018) believes that due to risk aversion many people may be resistant to any form of changes that may threaten the status quo and what they are used to. This could mean that petitions to make changes in everyday life in order to help society, such as the aim to reduce plastic waste, may take quite a long time to achieve as people may struggle to adapt to the changes. Risk aversion may also have implications for businesses because if they are being risk averse without being aware of it they could be restricting their success by not trying new methods.

As well as these results showing that conceptual replications can be useful in tackling the replication crisis, it also supports many claims made from psychologists who believe that conceptual replications are more effective than direct replications. For example, Meehl (1990) believed that a working scientist would prefer 2 successful replications out of 6 experiments that had dissimilar experimental conditions then 12 similar experiments all with the same result. Some may argue that because of this type of topic area seen throughout psychology at a certain level all replications of psychological research are conceptual (Strobe & Strack, 2014). Overall, this study shows that in order to help reduce the replication crisis psychologists are struggling with today, it may be more beneficial to conduct conceptual replications of a theory over direct replications of a specific result.

Reference List

  • Nussbaum, D. (2015). Conceptual Replication. Retrieved from
  • Hornstein, S., Brown, A., & Mulligan, N. (2003). Long-term flashbulb memory for learning of Princess Diana’s death. Memory11(3), 293-306. doi: 10.1080/09658210244000063
  • Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk. Econometrica47(2), 263. doi: 10.2307/1914185
  • Ert, E., & Erev, I. (2011). On the Descriptive Value of Loss Aversion in Decisions under Risk. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.1012022
  • McDougle, S., Boggess, M., Crossley, M., Parvin, D., Ivry, R., & Taylor, J. (2016). Credit assignment in movement-dependent reinforcement learning. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences113(24), 6797-6802. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1523669113
  • Brookes, J., Warburton, M., Alghadier, M., Mushtaq, F., & Mon-Williams, M. (2018). Studying Human Behaviour with Virtual Reality: The Unity Experiment Framework. doi: 10.1101/459339
  • Partos, T., Cropper, S., & Rawlings, D. (2016). You Don’t See What I See: Individual Differences in the Perception of Meaning from Visual Stimuli. PLOS ONE11(3), e0150615. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150615
  • Meehl, P. (1990). Appraising and Amending Theories: The Strategy of Lakatosian Defense and Two Principles that Warrant It. Psychological Inquiry1(2), 111. doi: 10.1207/s15327965pli0102_1
  • Crandall, C., & Sherman, J. (2016). On the scientific superiority of conceptual replications for scientific progress. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology66, 93-99. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.10.002
  • Stroebe, W., & Strack, F. (2014). The Alleged Crisis and the Illusion of Exact Replication. Perspectives On Psychological Science9(1), 59-71. doi: 10.1177/1745691613514450
  • Cherry, K. (2018). What Is Replication in Psychology Research?. Retrieved from
  • Strickland, B. (2016). Does replication matter? The case for conceptual replication and strong inference – International Cognition and Culture Institute. Retrieved from
  • Spacey, J. (2018). 9 Examples of Risk Aversion. Retrieved from


Item 1 – A diagram to show the procedure of the experiment influenced by Brookes, Warburton, Alghadier, Mushtaq and Mon-Williams’s (2018) study

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