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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

One thing I can say with certainty – as a student of psychology – is that I have participated in more psych-studies than the rest of the population. Additionally, I’ve a bit of experience running studies, which brings you into contact with a great many psych students, all of whom have experience in taking many psych studies.

Frequently these people are first-years who need to participate in order to satisfy a certain percentage of course credit. Other times they’re more advanced students who just want to stay connected with their more senior peers (I count myself among them), and other times they’re simply so poor that $10 for 20 minutes participation means a warm lunch and a bus-ticket (again, I count myself among them).

The thing about it, by design and fortune, is that when you do a study you very rarely actually know what you’re being studied on. I recently signed up for a study (which promised to pay $30 dollars!) that involved me visiting some room and painting a coffee cup, drinking coffee out of said cup for two weeks, then returning to the lab with it and lifting it up and down several hundred times from half a dozen different positions – granted, there was some fancy camera equipment pointed at me, and I did have metallic markers all over my hands and arms… but still, a lot of folk who went into the lab genuinely thought it had something to do with how they painted their mug. The silly first-years thought they were being psychoanalysed as to the content of their images. What they were actually doing was giving us a genuine sense of ownership over the mug, which is supposed to influence the way you interact with it in the presence of other people and different mugs, etc. That’s what I was told in the de-brief some time ago, so my memory may be a little hazy.

Now that might seem a little banal, but almost certainly there are other instances where I (and others) have walked into a lab and engage in some deeply profound human behaviour, only to walk away thinking that was a pretty silly experiment.

So here’s a study that strikes me as one in that category. Something that seems superficial inane, but is actually so much more.

I'll give you a description of what happens...

You walk into the lab and sit down. In front of you is an opaque cube with a hole in the top (covered by a couple of loose bolts), and a hole in the front (covered by a door), and a 6 in wand-like stick. The experimenter either plays a video of the following, or demonstrates it personally (doesn't really matter), but instructs you by saying:

You sit here. Watch what happens [on the computer] because you will have a go in a minute’.

So you watch. You watch an adult take the wand and use it to push the bolts out through the bolt holes covering the top hole. They then take the wand and insert it into the top hole, which can't be inserted the depth of the box (i.e. it's contacting something) and bang against it a couple of time. Finally, the door is opened (either slid open, or flipped open [depending on the condition]) and the wand inserted to retrieve (by way of a magnet) some reward.

Now a child will copy nearly every action, to the letter, and retrieve the reward. Adults will do the same. Chimps, too, will copy fairly accurately (they they often opt to use their fingers where possible).

Now let's imagine the box is not opaque, but completely transparent. Now you can see in the box. You see that after inserting the wand in the top hole it is obstructed by a false floor, and banging against it is as good as saying 'open sesame' for all the effect it will have. You can also see that, aside from the door, the hole in the front is connected to a chute with the prize available and unobstructed at the bottom.

You watch the demonstration again.

Again, a 5 year old child copies exactly the motions of the modellor (even the redundant false-floor tapping) at rates just short of 50%. A 3 year old copies at rates of just above 20%.

Oh... and the chimp? Forget it - the chimp goes straight for the door, the chute, and the prize.

The video differs in a few minor aspects, but the gyst is the same. I was reporting above on a study by McGuigan, Makinson and Whiten (featured in the clip) (2011).

They also found something fundamentally shocking...

You, as a rational, educated, science-literate blog reader, copy the clearly redundant actions at rates approaching 80%.

[The graph bars refer to having a child model the whole process, as opposed to an adult]

Other points to note is that adults and children will copy how to remove the bolts with hi-fidelity, as well as opening the door in the same fashion as demonstrated (flip or slide). The point is, we over-imitate as a truly fundamental trait.

Nielsen and Tomaselli (2010) argue this is universal. It's more than just a pedagogical western-society thing*. Kalahari Bushmen children do exactly the same thing.

It is argued that this overimitative phenomenon is related to the emergence of human cumulative culture. However, here and now, I won't go into that debate - as interesting as it is.

The observation I wanted to make is that when you walk into a lab and do a study like this you'd probably walk away thinking 'what a waste of my time'. Indeed, all adults in the first study were asked to guess the purpose of the study and all guessed superficially correct answers... suggesting it was a memory test, a problem solving study, or something to do with goal achievement.

But my point is that despite understanding what you just did in the psych lab, you may have just engaged in something so deeply profound that is serves to help define what it is to be human.



McGuigan, N., Makinson, J., & Whiten, A. (2011). From over-imitation to super-copying: Adults imitate causally irrelevant aspects of tool use with higher fidelity than young children British Journal of Psychology, 102 (1), 1-18 DOI: 10.1348/000712610X493115

Nielsen, M., & Tomaselli, K. (2010). Overimitation in Kalahari Bushman Children and the Origins of Human Cultural Cognition Psychological Science, 21 (5), 729-736 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610368808

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Thomas Joseph
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<i>Frequently these people are first-years who need to participate in order to satisfy a certain percentage of course credit.</i>

My university used for make undergraduates taking Psychology classes participate in the graduate student studies. We HAD to participate in 5 studies. It's an unethical practice. Fortunately it was banned and made voluntary as opposed to mandatory (alas, the year after I took my 101 class).

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Psycasm, one question. Do you think that the WEIRD phenomenon usually thought to be caused by socioeconomic/cultural reasons could just be that college students(the majority of WEIRD subjects) are "trained" to participate in studies?

And in regards to the study above, is there any way of controlling for the fact that participants in studies want to be nice? Let me explain that. Somebody that was asked to participate in an experiment  will most of the time know that he is participating in an experiment (even a 5 years old child). This has some implicit social norms attached to it, like trying to do your "best". Most people won't go into the experiment trying to screw it up. So instead of over imitation, it could be that the people participating in the study were being careful in not screwing up the experiment by going directly to the reward. This would make that the experiment measured not our tendency to imitate, but the social contract between the researcher and the subjects.


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@Thomas, why is it unethical?

@Yannisguerra - yeah, that's a really good point. I came across this article as part of an assignment I'm doing for a lecturer who's pretty well represented in this field, and this topic is covered in depth in his course. He was the one who did the Kalahari study, and though it's not published, he did the same work with 12 year olds, and older.... and they did exactly the same thing. His observation was (which I suspect holds just as well as in any WIERD context) was that the 12 y/o knew what they were doing was a bit of a joke, but they did it anyway.

He argues that the reasons we overimitate change as we get older. In young children it makes sense in order to acquire a repetoire of skills and problems solving strategies, as well as to conform (innately) for social reasons. Older folk, he argues, do it for more exclusive social reasons.

It's interesting that you should use the term norm - for the assignment we were given we had to argue if overimitation was a function of 'norm learning' or a form of 'distorted causal learning', and I genuinely believe it's a norm-learning process. That is we learn what ought to be done, not always the most causal way to do things.

So with regard to your question I do believe it is, in part, due to doing what's expected of you in a lab. But I think that its not that different from what you're expected to do when someone is teaching you how to do something in any context.

For instance, consider a skill which you've learned in your adult life. The example I like to use is learning to roll a cigarette. If you've ever tried, it's actually quite hard, but if someone shows you you tend to copy everything they do, including where you put the paper or filter or shred the tobacco.

For instance, when I roll (on the very rary ocacsion) I put the filter in my mouth, shred the tobacco in the packet lid, take the paper, fill it with tobacco, then take the filter out of my mouth and roll. Now there's no reason why I need to have the filter in my mouth, or do those things in that order - but it's how I was taught, and that's how I do it. If you have a think about a skill you've learned - as in, explicitly taught - then I suspect you'd do it almost exactly as they did it. T

he lab context is a bit different, and not much has been done in more organic settings, but it's likely to hold. I don't think it's necessarily a WIERD phenomenon, but more basic than that...


Thomas Joseph
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It's unethical because you're forcing students to partake in studies they may not otherwise volunteer for. Doesn't matter if they have the choice of a thousand studies, the fact is they MUST subject themselves to a number of these studies in order to graduate/get credit/pass the class. It's coerced, not voluntary. Ergo, unethical.

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I'm not sure I follow. You need to attend tutorials, too, in order to pass. If you're a psych student (particular in a psych course) I don't see why you shouldn't have to be involved in the process.

I'm not trying to be contrarian, but we are forced to do a lot in our education that we would otherwise avoid...

Thomas Joseph
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There is a huge difference between attending classes and subjecting yourself to psychological tests. Surely that's patently obvious.  My alma mater thought so because they did away with the practice and forced the psychology department to stop forcing first and second year undergrad's to sign up for psych projects in order to receive a grade in the class.

Making something mandatory is coercion. If it's voluntary, there is no such problem.

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I must apologize, I'm not trying to be aggrevating, but I don't understand.

Surely being involved in psych experiments when studying psych is like having to dissect animals in biology - it's part of a package deal.

Psych experiments all pass through various ethics boards, and so the content of the experiment has been tailored to be acceptable, and in the vast majority of cases the content is bordering on banal - such lifting up a glass, taking a survey, or watching dots on a screen then pressing the buttons.


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