[Explained] Happy software developers solve problems better: psychological measurements in empirical software engineering

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D. Graziotin, X. Wang, P. Abrahamsson, “Happy software developers solve problems better: psychological measurements in empirical software engineering“,PeerJ, vol. 2, pp. e289, 2014. DOI:10.7717/peerj.289

Open access. Click the link and read the study.

In this study we tested a series of hypotheses coming from various psychology fields. These hypotheses were about a difference of intellectual (and cognitive-driven) performance in terms of creativity (finding new, surprising, but effective solutions) and analytical (logical, mathematical) problem solving. The hypotheses were tested on various types of workers but not software developers.

We wanted to perform a study where all the tools and measurements came from psychology research and were validated. So, we designed a quasi experiment in a laboratory, where 42 BSc and MSc students had their pre-existing affect (strictly speaking, mood or happiness) measured and then conducted two tasks. The first task was about creativity, the second about analytic problem solving.

For measuring the pre-existing affect we opted for the Scale of Positive And Negative Experience (SPANE). It is a questionnaire, where participants rate how often they felt in certain ways over the last four weeks.

The creativity task was about writing captions for bizarre pictures like this one. A series of judges evaluated the creativity of the pictures. This is called the Consensual Assessment Technique.

The analytic task was similar to algorithm designing and executing. We setup the opensource Psychology Experiment Building Language (PEBL) to load the Tower of London test, which resembles the more famous Tower of Hanoi game. PEBL was able to collect the measures that let us calculate a score for the analytic performance.

We compared the scores obtained in both task with the pre-existing affect of developers. The results showed that the happiest software developers outperformed the other developers in terms of analytic performance. No statistically significant results could be reached about creativity.

Our study offered an initial support to the claim that happy software developers perform better. But there is more. This study was likely the first in software engineering research to completely adopt psychological measurements, theories, and concepts related to affect and performance in terms of creativity and analytic problem solving. Finally, we raised the need to perform studies on the human aspects of software engineering properly using psychology.

This post is part of the scicomm series [Explained]. Read about it.

About the author

dgraziotin

Dr. Daniel Graziotin is a senior researcher (Akademischer Rat) at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. His research interests include human, behavioral, and psychological aspects of empirical software engineering, studies of science, and open science. He is associate editor at the Journal of Open Research Software and academic editor at the Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) journal. Daniel was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship for postdoctoral researchers in 2017, the European Design Award (bronze) in 2016, and the Data Journalism Award in 2015. He received his Ph.D. in computer science at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy.

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By dgraziotin

About Author

dgraziotin

Dr. Daniel Graziotin is a senior researcher (Akademischer Rat) at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. His research interests include human, behavioral, and psychological aspects of empirical software engineering, studies of science, and open science. He is associate editor at the Journal of Open Research Software and academic editor at the Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) journal. Daniel was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship for postdoctoral researchers in 2017, the European Design Award (bronze) in 2016, and the Data Journalism Award in 2015. He received his Ph.D. in computer science at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy.