Where next for BBC Lab UK?

Professor Robert Winston Professor Robert Winston has been involved in a BBC Lab UK personality test

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Emergent service worker or technical middle class?

If you have no idea what they mean, then you weren't one of the millions who took the BBC class calculator earlier this month.

The online quiz introduced a new model categorising British society into seven groups, as opposed to the traditional working, middle and upper classes.

Drawing a jaw-dropping 4.3 million views on the day of launch, it was put together by BBC Lab UK and a team of sociologists.

BBC producer Michael Orwell guessed the calculator would be popular but didn't expect it to be spoofed by various websites or mentioned on Have I Got News for You.

"The calculator was a fun widget that was a way of showing someone's approximate position within this class model," he says.

Mass participation

With its five variables, it was inspired by - but is not the same as - the class survey, launched in January 2011, which used 120 variables.

The calculator, published alongside the survey's results, was a "trade-off", says Orwell.

They didn't want users to spend much time on it and he acknowledges "a lot of people weren't categorised totally correctly but at least it set up debate around the real research".

Start Quote

With the size of these samples, they're able to see very, very nuanced connections”

End Quote Michael Orwell Producer

More than 161,000 people took part in the Great British class survey, but it's just one of 11 experiments conducted via the BBC Lab UK website since it was established in 2009.

Part of the Knowledge & Learning department, Lab UK allows people to take part in science tests that lead to new and groundbreaking findings.

The staff are usually approached with ideas from TV productions, after which they research the best and most-published academics for the relevant subject.

Experiments are designed by the scientists involved, although the Lab UK team sometimes suggest areas that could be covered.

The BBC's reach means all 11 tests have drawn around 2.5m participants; numbers can be boosted by publicity, for example, on The One Show.

Future results

Editor Dan Gluckman says most surveys, which run for 25 minutes, attract at least 100,000 contributors each.

"For the scientists, any of these numbers are just extraordinary - a lot of psychology experiments are run with a few dozen people."

Orwell adds: "With the size of these samples, they're able to see very, very nuanced connections between things."

Forthcoming results from Lab UK

Michael Johnson
  • Can you compete under pressure? (fronted by former athlete Michael Johnson)
  • Test your morality
  • Get yourself hired
  • The Big Risk test
  • How musical are you?
  • The Big Personality test

He admits they have to be aware of "selection bias", where statistical findings may be distorted by over or under-representation of groups of people.

To compensate for the fact that those on lower incomes may have less online access, the Great British class survey also recruited a sample of 1030 participants to ensure better representation.

Data from the Lab UK tests is then given to academics in anonymous form.

It takes at least one year to analyse the results before they are reviewed by peers and published in academic journals.

As the most popular experiment, the Big Personality Test will release its final findings later this year, nearly four years after launch.

Preliminary results from the survey, fronted by the scientist Professor Robert Winston, have found that those who are more open seem to be happier in creative jobs.

Other experiments that will publish their findings in the near future include those on sport psychology, musicality and job-seeking skills.

Results will also be released from tests on morality and risk-taking, so don't be surprised if they become a talking point soon à la the class calculator.

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