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BYU professor leading with video-based research methods
Curtis LeBaron
BYU professor Curtis LeBaron in his office on campus.

Decades ago, BYU professor Curtis LeBaron conducted research at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. One day a special agent showed LeBaron a video of a police interrogation and asked him one question: How did officers get a confession from the suspect who was later proven innocent?

After 20 minutes of watching and studying, LeBaron was about to give up when he noticed something subtle: an interrogator moved his chair a couple of feet and took a more aggressive position in front of the suspect. LeBaron realized that without the video — if he only had the audio recording — he wouldn’t have known what had changed during the interrogation.

That experience 25 years ago started LeBaron on a path to become a pioneer in video-based research methods. Today he is an associate professor of management at the BYU Marriott School and an expert in analyzing video recordings of human behavior, specifically using those skills to help organizations pinpoint the onset of problems or successes.

“People don’t always know how they do what they do; we’re not cognizant of a lot of our behavior,” LeBaron said. “Video picks up things that people themselves don’t remember doing. I use video data to help people see what they are unaware of.”

His place among experts in his field was underscored again this spring, when he served as editor for a special issue of Organizational Research Methods focused on video-based research methods. He was also the lead author on the first article in the issue.

The study details how video has become an increasingly common methodology for social science research but is still relatively new to the field of organizational studies and management. And while those growing up in the smartphone generation have been accustomed to video their whole lives, video isn’t utilized in formal research as much as many would expect.

“Video is a relatively new technology. It’s not like a microscope that’s been around for hundreds of years,” LeBaron said. “Its newness creates a self-perpetuating problem because if you don’t have people who are using the methodology and becoming expert in it, then you don’t have professors teaching students how to use it and become expert in it.

"One of the things we see in younger people, teenagers for example, is they are very transparent. They put information about themselves online that previous generations would never do. The current generation is much more comfortable being videotaped," LeBaron said.

He hopes his work and the special issue of the journal will spur more people to use video-based research methods. He said video will naturally become a more prominent research methodology since rising generations are more transparent and comfortable with recording themselves and posting it online.

“What motivates me the most is when I analyze video that makes a social difference,” LeBaron added. “For example, with the police interrogation video, none of us want innocent people to be convicted. Analyzing how interrogators get confessions from innocent people is something that needs to be done. We need to know what’s going on so we can make improvements.”

Writer: K.C. Miller