Onerous Word Problems

“In another study…[we] conducted an experiment ostensibly about music perception — but that actually investigated how feelings of compassion might be increased…. We paired up participants in teams: one real participant and one confederate. First, they had to tap their hands on sensors to tones played over earphones. In some cases the tones led them to tap their hands in synchrony; in other cases, the tones led them to tap their hands in a random mismatching manner. We next had the participants watch their tapping partner get cheated by another confederate, which resulted in the partner’s erroneously being assigned to complete a stack of onerous word problems.” — From an essay in the New York Times

Abstract: In our most recent experiment here at the Experimental Experiment Group, the results of which are about to be reported in next month’s Journal of Incredibly Complicated Psychological Experiments, we asked two participants and two confederates to leave a room that was equipped with undetectable motion sensors and surveillance cameras. Both confederates had been told about the sensors and the cameras, but none of them knew that the other had been told.

The participants and confederates were led into the main room. They eyed each other warily. The two of us experimenters eyed each other warily, also, because we had designed the experiment so that we wouldn’t know completely what the other was up to. In fact, it wasn’t entirely clear at this point which were the participants and which were the confederates. This hadn’t exactly been in the original plan but once realized it had worked out that way, we were like: OK, this is a little freaky but what the hell.

There were four doors to the room, each door leading to a corridor (with surveillance cameras) that ended in another room, where the confederates would be isolated until they decided to return to the main room. While in the isolation room, each confederate (at this point it felt safer just to presume everybody was a confederate) was asked to solve some onerous word problems. Each confederate knew that some of the confederates were confederates, but no confederate knew that he himself was a confederate. (We used all males, as we wanted to avoid pronoun complexities at the outset. We will run the same experiment next week with four women and the week after that with two men and two women, so back off!)

The two of us who were running the experiment had the choice to tell all of the confederates that a pint of gourmet cookie dough ice cream (confederates were left to imagine what brand it would be, which we thought might be useful for another experiment) and three million dollars — a gift from the Garment Foundation — would await the person who came into the room last. But neither of us running the experiment knew if the other had chosen to tell the confederates about this reward or not. Which, perhaps, was the point. That’s for you to figure out.

Results: All four confederates left their isolation rooms, having ignored the onerous word problems. Why shouldn’t they ignore them? Wouldn’t you? Instead they hovered near the supposed reward room. But the doors were closed and the room was soundproof, so that this effort to game the experiment couldn’t work. You should have seen them, with their ears to the door and all. Biting their nails, muttering, reaching for the doorknob, then pulling it back. We are talking three million dollars, here, plus ice cream. (Of course there was no three million dollars and just a puddle of indifferent vanilla in a dirty dish, but the confederates didn’t know that. Or at least, not from me.) Reaching, pulling back, reaching, pulling back. We had to laugh. They stayed there for hours. Then days. Three million, they were thinking. Finally they all passed out from dehydration and had to be taken to the Emergency Room, where their fellow-patients who were not comatose were asked to solve some onerous word problems. They all refused.

Methodological Note: All of the onerous word problems were sourced from The Big Book of Brain Bafflers, which was acquired at a Society for Ethical Culture tag sale and which everybody in the psych faculty lounge agrees is about as onerous a collection as they come. There is one about trying to get two chickens and a hungry weasel across a river that we’re still not sure can be solved.

Conclusions: Higher cognitive functions such as logical problem-solving ability may be adversely affected by a number of factors, including dehydration and a phenomenon we’re tentatively calling “Frustrated Reward Expectation.” We hope to refine and further test these findings with our next experiment, which involves a diamond necklace, extended sensory deprivation, and this really weird peg-jumping puzzle purchased at the rest stop just past Exit 54.

Daniel Menaker is the editor of Grin & Tonic.

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