Simulating the Impossible to Learn About Reality, A History Boy, 28/05/2015

Not the most accurate depiction of a typical psychology
lab. I did always find a lot of this movie funny, though.
I have an extremely dark sense of humour.
I think one reason why so many people buy Dan Ariely’s books is that he’s good at talking about the day-to-day process of experimental psychological research in a way that amuses a reader. He makes you laugh.

Given what happens during a lot of his experiments, simply describing them as they happen can put a smile on your face. Psychology experiments are utterly ridiculous, in terms of what they ask us to do. I very vaguely remember participating in one when I was a student, because my friend C, who was an honours psychology student, asked me to.

As I recall, and I don’t recall very well because this happened around 2007, I sat down at a computer while a face flashed on screen, and I had to push one button to indicate my positive or negative feelings about the face. The images of faces were mixed in with images of numbers. Bear in mind that I may also be combining this experiment I did with one I later read about. What it actually happened in the lab doesn't matter for the story, only that I did silly things there and talked about why they were so silly. 

After the experiment was done and her supervisor gave me my $16 for my time, C and I talked about how it worked. I made a guess as to what the experiment was meant to measure. She told me it was actually a pretty good setup for a psychology experiment. 

But her actual experiment was set up entirely differently. What I thought they were really measuring was actually part of what was supposed to distract me so they could observe my unintentional behaviour in reaction to the general framework of what I was doing.

Don’t ask me what either of us actually said.

I thought it was interesting that they’d develop this rather elaborate scenario whose content was so contrived and whose structure was so simple, but which also contained a distraction for your conscious attention from what they were actually trying to observe about you.

Don't you want this? Don't you want this
Ariely describes one of his experiments, where he gives one group genuine Chloé brand sunglasses and tells them so, one group fake Chloés and tells them so, one group real Chloés and tells them they’re fakes, and one group fake Chloés and tells them they’re real. 

To a randomly selected half of each of these four groups, he gives a set of math problems with an answer key on the reverse side. To the other randomly selected half of each, he gives them the quiz without the answer key. How much cash the participant was paid for taking part depended on how well they did on the quiz. 

The experiment was to correlate people’s propensity to cheat (whether they’d take advantage of the answer key being literally in their hands as they write a quiz they’ll get money for) was correlated with wearing counterfeit designer goods and knowing you’re wearing them. If you know you’re already deceiving, will you deceive again?

I remember, on many occasions over the years, having conversations with friends and colleagues who knew nothing about psychology. They’d often say that the experiments were ridiculous* and useless because they were so abstract from real life.

* Well, they are, but scientifically so.

These folks had all taken psychology, though. Psych 1000, the course that’s loaded with mediocre arts students who have to take a science credit to graduate, but who don’t want to do math or spend extra time in a lab. So many people take an introduction to psychology solely for a mandatory credit, but who don’t give a crap about the subject. 

Yet because it’s the only science course that a vast majority of paying customers** bother with, there’s immense institutional pressure to pass them all. You can’t give them a rigorous course and adjust all their marks to pass levels because that would be dishonest as an educator. But you can fill the course content with relative pablum compared to what you learn in higher-level courses after you decide that the degree program is worth pursuing in itself. 

I play this game at least four times every day just on
my own.
** I mean students in our country’s highest learning and research institutions.

The issue is how many good students the psych department drives away through boring them out of their minds. If your first exposure to a discipline of knowledge is dumbed-down to a level where even the barely indifferent can pass it with all the effort of a stoned shrug, you won’t think it’s all that interesting.

I never took a course in psychology, though. I was a smart enough arts major that I did university-level chemistry in high school in a class of eight, where I got personalized instruction from a knowledgeable teacher. Instead, everything I know about psychology comes from reading books and articles by psychological theorists and practitioners. Some specialize in the discipline of psychology itself, and some specialize in others but study psychological theories and techniques for their own work.

Most of my psychological knowledge, I know from reading books and having conversations with philosophers of science who often draw on the history, methods, and theories of psychology for their own ends. Here’s something I learned from philosophy of science about why psychology experiments are so abstract from human behaviour.

The whole idea of an experiment isn’t to replicate the world around us so we can observe things as they really unfold. We can do that by wandering around the world observing things. An experiment is supposed to isolate one particular phenomenon from everything it normally interacts with so we can learn exactly what happens in that one specific process.

So you have to create a very artificial environment to learn anything specific about a process. In real life, no process is truly isolated, so you can never quite get a firm grip on what the essential cause of a phenomenon might be, or whether one kind of activity is happening, or another one that looks superficially similar but is very different. 

Psychology wants to do this with processes in human cognition, so of course their scenarios are going to sound weird and unrealistic. All experiments are unrealistic. Introducing realism would prevent us from learning the kind of knowledge that experiments can produce.

No comments:

Post a Comment