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Graduate school at the University of Michigan (in Ann Arbor, Michigan) provided me with a rich, rewarding experience. I was in a program aimed at understanding more about how human beings perceive, decide, learn, and solve problems. I loved it! I still love thinking about those issues. Part of my joy sprang from interacting with my classmates and sharing experiences with them. I thought I would pass along one of the experiences that a classmate told me about. It might prove valuable to you as well. 

My classmate ran an experiment and one of his subjects ran out of the room screaming that they couldn’t take it any more. My classmate was horrified that he had caused such stress and completely mystified that he had done so. He felt terrible. He calmed the subject down and eventually discovered what had happened. 

In many psychology experiments, one of the things we look at is how long it takes for a person to make a decision. The longer it takes to make a decision, roughly speaking, the more difficult the task and the more thought that it takes to reach a decision. If you were a subject in a psych experiment circa 1970, you might well be part of an experiment to study the “Sternberg Search Task” named after Saul Sternberg (link below). The point is to understand more about people’s “working memory.” This is a facility that comes into play nearly constantly for us in daily life.

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For example, your dinner server knows that they are out of four of the items on the menu right now. Rather than tell you all that up-front, they take orders and many times, no-one asks for the items they’re out of. But every time people order she has to compare what people order to this list in her head and let them know. Either that or they will go back to the kitchen and put in an order that can’t be fulfilled. They would then have to go back and tell them. Time is money in the restaurant business and particularly so for the server, who often relies on tips.

Here’s how it would be for you to be a subject in one of these tasks. You’d be presented for a few seconds with a set of letters such as: {A J D H C Z}. The letters would disappear and then, a few seconds later, a single letter would appear; e.g., “Q” and you would press the left lever as quickly as you could if the letter was not in the list and press the right lever if it had been in the list. After a few seconds, you’d be presented with another set such as {X I U W B M} for a few seconds and then, a single letter would appear and you’d be once again asked to decide whether the letter “W” for instance, had been in the list. 

Ah, but how many variations on that general theme can you create? Does it matter how large the set is? (yes) How much? (a lot) Do people of different ages do differently on this? (they do) How much does it degrade your performance to be doing something else? (depends what it is). So, that was the game for us.

Usually, if you were a “subject” in such an experiment, you would do this task for 30-60 minutes. It would be tedious and a little mentally taxing, but not so mind-wrenching as trying to learn an insane foreign language such as English (for non-native speakers). (Actually, it’s pretty damned hard even for native speakers, but we don’t like to let on). Nor, would it be like trigonometry is to some; nor trying to “analyze” a poem is for others; nor like trying to sing a tune on key is for some of us. I have been a subject many times in such experiments and this one is not over-taxing. It’s perhaps the level of “stress” that solving a moderate crossword puzzle would generate. 

So, I could understand my classmate’s shock. Wouldn’t you be if you handed someone a cross-word puzzle and a few moments later, they ran screaming from the room?

Here’s what happened. Usually, these studies are experimenter-paced. That means, that whatever happens is controlled by a preset schedule. In this study, for instance, a new set of letters might appear every 20 seconds. You would look at the set of letters and it would disappear after 5 seconds. Perhaps you’d look at a blank screen for 5 seconds and then the single letter would appear. You’d have up to five seconds to make your decision and get ready for the next set of letters to appear. 

My classmate, however, decided to be “nicer” so he made the experiment self-paced. The subjects could take as long as they liked to start the next trial. When they were ready, they could press both levers at once and the next set would appear. That certainly doesn’t sound stressful.

How did the subject interpret this situation? They thought that they had to press both levers before the next set appeared. And, from their perspective, every time, they reacted just a little faster. But it didn’t help! They tried to go faster and faster, but no matter how fast they went, the next set appeared immediately after they pressed the levers. Although the “subject” was actually in complete control, they perceived it as though they had zero control. 

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The way you frame a situation may be quite different from the way others frame the situation. It’s no wonder that people may try to solve a problem differently based on their own experience and interests. It’s even more fundamental when people are not even trying to solve the same problem. A problem framed as differently as the Experimenter and the Subject framed the situation in the above scenario is really a completely different problem. In this case, the problem that the experimenter had set for the subject was an easy one: “Decide when you feel like doing another one of these little puzzles and I shall give you one.”

Meanwhile, the problem that the subject was trying to solve was this: “How do I keep speeding up so that I can always press the two levers before the next puzzle comes up?!?!” 

That second problem is a stressful one. 

But it only exists because of the way the Subject framed the problem.

Have you ever framed a problem “into existence?”

I think that it’s not uncommon for “Madison Avenue” (synecdoche for American Advertising Industry) to do just that. Unlike my classmate, Madison Avenue is intentionally framing a problem for their clients. 

“Do you suffer from straight elbow wrinkle? Millions of Americans suffer from straight elbow wrinkles without even knowing! Check right now. It may save you millions! Go to a mirror and straighten your arm. Is your elbow skin nice and tight? Or is it filled with unsightly wrinkles? Don’t be embarrassed! Millions of your fellow Americans also suffer. Now, you need suffer no longer! By use of this ointment, one shilling the box, your elbow skin will stay fit, taught, and youthful looking!” 

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Is this a real problem? It may become one for anyone who succumbs to the advertising pitch above. The company promoting “Elbow Cream” had a problem: “How do we make more money even though we have no decent products that solve real problems?” They transfigured their problem into one for their customers. Some would say this is just business as usual. And, if the Elbow Cream has horrendous side-effects, that’s no big deal so long as you sputter out those side-effects quickly & unintelligibly on your TV commercials against a background of music, dancing, and flowers. 

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Maybe it’s business as usual. 

There is an alternative though. The “Elbow Cream” company could have instead sought to understand some real problem, figured out how to solve it and then marketed that solution. To me, the difference between the two, in terms of ethics is huge. 

What do you think? 







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