14 March 2009

Trust, identity and paranoia

This is a bit off-topic, but I had an email this week from a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. It read like this:
This is an invitation to participate in an online research study being conducted by Mr. Tal Yarkoni under the supervision of Dr. Simine Vazire at Washington University in St. Louis. The study investigates the relation between people's personality and the content and style of their writing, and has been approved by the Washington University Human Research Protection Office.

The study consists of a single personality questionnaire assessing your personality and background, as well as information about your blog (if you have one). You can choose to participate in either a short or a long version of the study, so your participation can take as little as 10 minutes or as long as 30-40 minutes.
The email address given in the text of the message was a Washington University one, but the email itself came from a gmail.com address. The website with the questionnaire wasn't an official Washington University one and, although the text on the questionnaire looked very legit, I wasn't entirely happy about taking part in the experiment, although it did sound interesting. I did a bit of Googling and found that there certainly was a real researcher by this name, so I sent an email to his 'official' email address, hoping to discover whether Tal was really behind this site and suggesting that the email was likely to put some people off taking part. Searching for the text of the email suggests that it has put off at least one blogger.

Anyway, the upshot is that I had an immediate reply from Tal, explaining that he used Gmail to send out the bulk emails and that Gmail would not allow anything other than a Gmail address to be used for this. He couldn't use a university server for the questionnaire because he needed particular software tools which weren't available on them. So if you're a blogger who has received this message, I feel honour-bound to let you know that it isn't some sort of confidence trick, but a genuine experiment. Tal told me that he's had a better response rate than he was expecting, so clearly not everyone is as paranoid as I am!


Rose said...

I had noticed the difference in the email address used and the one listed, but don't know why I didn't think about writing the official one.
Are you going to do the survey? I just deleted that email the other day.
It is hard not to be paranoid these days--I get so many emails that I know are not legit.

Rose said...

I meant to tell you thanks for telling me what you found.

Amanda said...

Hi Rose - yes, I'm doing the survey right now. If you go for the longer option it takes quite a while!

VP said...

Hi - I did the survey yesterday and then woke up this morning paranoid that I'd given away my blog to hackers or spammers. Thanks so much for digging a little deeper and setting my mind at rest :)

Thanks for your joke contribution yesterday - the total raised stands at £23 so far. The overall thing raised nearly £58 million last night - the best total ever and even more remarkable in these dire financial times!

Have a great weekend.

Linda said...

Paranoia is good sometimes. This could have been a clever con. The unclever stuff that makes me laugh are the emails I get at work - in a university - offering me a bogus degree from the most unlikely sounding institutions.