Thursday, 11 October 2012

What were they supposed to be measuring again?

I have always found certain guilty pleasure in the experiments on human behaviour. So much so that I have gleefully had fun in the various virtual test chambers ranging from moral dilemmas to measuring facial attraction to optical illusions. (Incidentally, it was taking the BBC's "brain sex" quiz repeatedly that made me notice how picking up my first first-person-view computer game and playing it extensively had "unlocked the ability" to do well in those imaginary 3D rotation tasks.) In my excitement to have more and more experiment exposure I also developed the grumbl-y little voice inside my mind that pouted at the "for fun" and at the "serious" testing alike. "Oh, puh-lease, they've posed the problem completely wrong," it said. And: "how can you pick a course of action from outside the situation". And: "none of these options describes how I'd choose to act and yet they assess me based on that choice?" And: "come on, it's so obvious from these answers what you're after; if I'd be biased in favour of a certain outcome - which I am - I'd immediately know which to stick to!"

I was becoming just as disgruntled about the behavioural testing as I had already become towards "testing knowledge" (and the people who did well in those tests). So, taking cues from that little voice, I've developed an even stronger taste for other kind of studies. The ones that demonstrate how things aren't quite as simple as you'd assume. (Or that things don't even work quite the way you assume.) The ones that demonstrate that your answers depend just as much from how you set up the test as they do from the subject's reaction. Which brings me to The Marshmallow Study Revisited. My favorite point from the authors is this:

"Being able to delay gratification—in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow—not only reflects a child's capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting," says Kidd. "Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay." 

I wish I could project the ability to quote studies and meta-studies to my toddler self who often knew very well the background of her choices (and sensed when countering adult argument wouldn't add up or hold up) but somehow couldn't get most of those pesky grown ups to see reason. Though, come to think of it, some of those pesky grownups became only more motivated to enforce their flawed stance once presented with evidence to the contrary.

Here's a word to IO9 rounding up a few more cases of mismeasuring:

And here's a photo of me, pretending to play with sand. There was a photographer at the kindergarten that day. He was moving around, proably trying to catch the little ones in their most natural and at some point he threw a general request in the air: "would you be so kind and play a little?" At which point I promptly quit my exploration attempts, sat in the sanbox (filled with stranger-kids, away from my group), picked up a little sand and rolled it from one palm to another while maintaining this tense, focused (or so I thought) gaze. All natural!

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