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White rats and white lies

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PSYCHOLOGY, the science of behaviour, is an enigmatic discipline. People rarely understand exactly what sort of topics it encompasses. They assume it is something feel-good: the mind, the subconscious, dreams, etc.

Actually it is none of those things. My psychology department was scathing about Freud. We had but one lecture on psychoanalysis, skipping over the Id and the Ego before bumping into the Super Ego – in this instance the one belonging to our professor. You could tell he thought it was a load of tosh, and therefore so did we.

We conducted numerous behavioural experiments instead. The basement of the psychology building was crammed with the cages for the white rats used in the Skinner Boxes. You had to be careful when you handled the rats and be sure to wear stout leather gloves. The bites could be deep. I preferred working with subjects who weren’t likely to rip my finger open.

‘The purpose of this experiment is to test your powers of recall,’ I would intone into the microphone, as my subject sat in a chair with a pair of headphones clamped to her ears. ‘I am going to play you ten lists of words containing ten words each. When a list is about to be presented, you will hear a buzzer, and when the list is ended you will hear a bell. At the sound of the bell, you will have thirty seconds in which to write down as many of the words as you can remember. Don’t worry about making a mistake. If you are not sure what a word may have been, take a guess. Mark this guess with an X. Once the test has started, you must not ask me any questions. Have you any questions?’

This routine was an essential part of the experiment. I needed to establish the ‘perceptual set’, as it was termed, to control that all-important variable ‘subject attitude’. This always involved misleading the subjects; putting them off the scent. Were my subjects to know what the experiment was really about, it could influence the results. When I think about it now, it seems I had exchanged white rats for white lies.

This particular experiment was designed to examine a notional phenomenon called perceptual defence. You have heard the phrase ‘in one ear and out of the other’. Some people can be obtuse about things they do not wish to hear. It can drive psychoanalysts crazy (figuratively speaking). This has led some psychologists to wonder if there is a mechanism within a person’s mind (although we shouldn’t really use that word) which filters out or misperceives unwelcome information. If there is, it would suggest that incoming stimuli are policed, and accepted or rejected at a pre-conscious, subliminal level.

The possibility of subliminal perception has long intrigued advertisers and other manipulators of public opinion. They find the idea of being able to influence a person without he or she being fully aware of it very alluring. Be that as it may, my experiment was designed to investigate whether unwelcome stimuli could get through. All the time? Sometimes? Rarely? Never? Well, you get the idea. In addition, of course, I needed a stimulus which would be unwelcome.

You probably guessed it: each list I played to the subjects contained an obscenity, such as sh*t, and worse words which I won’t go into here. The rest were decoy words such as rowlocks, pianist and fallacy, which sounded obscene but weren’t. The null hypothesis in all this was that the taboo words were as likely/unlikely to be missed or misheard as were the decoy words; and that the decoy words were as likely/unlikely to be missed or misheard as the taboo words. It’s quite complicated. Are you keeping up?

At the end of one session my subject (I will call her Sue) pulled the headphones off and looked me straight in the eye.

‘I don’t think this experiment is about memory at all,’ she scolded. ‘I think you were just trying to shock me.’

The perceptual defence experiment was one of the most interesting I ever ran. It was especially revealing, but not in the way that I expected. Sue not only perceived the unwelcome words, she perceived something else that was unwelcome: the fact that I was not being completely honest with her.

Sue never agreed to be a subject in any of my experiments again. She no longer trusted me. Quite rightly. I suppose that’s why psychologists mainly work with rats. Rats don’t mind (although we shouldn’t really use that word) if you tell them lies.

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Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik (pseudonym) was a student of psychology in the seventies, before ditching it to work in television.

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