Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Messing With Psychologists' Heads: Part Two

So a while back I described a psychological experiment I underwent (for free no less, because I am humanity's benefactor), and the resulting realisation that my own unique view of the world might not necessarily be the best one to avail oneself of when attempting to understand mankind.

Well, since then, I've apparently been on the psych department's sucker list, and any time they want someone to compare pictures of faces or play chess with a Diana monkey, I'm the guy they call [1]. I did one experiment before Jersey that I never got round to writing up [2], and then another upon my return. I didn't think too much about it at the time, but it suddenly hit me earlier today that it ties into a topic that's been on my mind for a little while (especially after reading the first two parts of the Hyperion Cantos whilst in the Channel Islands, which I can't recommend highly enough), namely empathy.

The experiment itself consisted of four stages. Mercifully, none of them involved filling a small test-tube with saliva. I mean, I say small, but the problem with saliva is that it's mainly bubbles, and bubbles simply aren't good enough. I ended up spending what felt like hours spitting into the tube through a straw, using said straw to spear the bubbles, wiping away any spittle that was now running down the outside of the tube (none of you are eating while reading this, are you?), and repeating, again and again and again. I wish I was Luke Cage:

"I need a sample of your saliva."
"This is a sample of my fist!"

Anyway, I digress.

The experiment itself consisted of four stages. First, I was given a booklet containing ten brief stories. All of them contained dialogue, each line of which had a box at the end. The idea was for me to tick the box of any phrase I thought could have upset someone in the story. The doctor supervising me made it very clear that I should "try to consider what I normal person would do". Perhaps my reputation precedes me.

Regardless, despite the advice, I found it a very difficult exercise to complete. Each time I read a story I found it tremendously difficult to not objectively analyse the situation, and from that decide whether anyone in the story had a justifiable case for being upset. I knew that wasn't the point, but I found it very hard to do otherwise. "Should be" and "could be" seemed to get mixed up in my head. Which I thought was odd, though not necessarily out of character. I wonder to what degree my responses would have changed had I known the people the stories referred to ("Senor Spielbergo says Big G looks fat in that dress").

Next, I listened to a bunch of voice actors reading numbers out to me (obviously, as a mathematician, this is my hobby in any case), and I had to decide what the emotion the speaker was communicating. First up was a choice between proud, guilty, bored, interested and neutral. All the way through this one I found it very hard to tell between guilty and bored; I put this down to spending so long listening to children reading numbers back to me, often they put so much effort into making their boredom plain it tends to creep into other tones. This was followed by happy, sad, fearful, angry, and neutral again. Now it was sad and fearful that were difficult to distinguish (ultimately I figured it was all in the speed of delivery), though happy and angry occasionally merged in an odd way, presumably because the actors were American and it's sometimes hard to tell if they're ecstatic or outraged, especially when all you have to go on is "three hundred five!!!"

The final stage of this second part was only slightly different. Same actors, same emotions. This time though I had to relate what the person was feeling, which made more of a difference than I would have expected (which is to say I expected none).

So far, so so-so. The obvious conclusion is that this is an attempt to compare how well people empathise in the abstract with how they do it when confronted by an actual person (or at least their voice). Where things got interesting was in the next stage.

Part the third required me to read twenty-five numbers into a microphone. Each set of five had to be spoken in a different tone. Unsurprisingly these were once again angry, happy, frightened, [3] and sad.

This intrigued me for two reasons. Firstly, was this a test to see how well someone's accuracy of empathy affected their ability to project feeling? Does that work? Is empathy an aid to an acting career? It's an interesting idea. Obviously, it can't be necessary, given that plenty of actors are bastards, but if it's true as a general trend, it would certainly have some fascinating implications (especially for Hollywood; why did they so many of them end up as liberals?).

Secondly, assuming I'm right and there was some attempt going on to measure my level of projection (or spouting a crock, as my old school friends would have it), then how exactly is that measured? What would the scale be? Is this a daring attempt by the psychologists to create the world's first objective scale of acting talent, measured (presumably) in milliOliviers?

The last thing I had to do was read aloud a list of words, all of which were in some sense difficult to pronounce [4]. This too I thought was worthy of consideration, the implication apparently being that empathy is in some sense correlated to literacy. Now that, if true (and, of course, if correlation was eventually strengthened into causation), would be a very interesting thing to know. I am in no sense qualified to offer any explanations as to why it might be the case (and yes I know that hardly ever stops me, shut up), and in fairness this may already be well-known, or indeed already disproved, by the psychological community at large (I realise I'm extrapolating wildly from one experiment). Despite all that, though, I thought it worth mentioning. Certainly the nature of any hypothetical links between empathy, literacy, and show-business in general would make for an interesting discussion.

Update: I mentioned this discussion to A when I last saw her, and she suggested that literacy and empathic ablility may indeed have a connection, because the more literate you are the greater your vocabulary is for the range of emotional states. Thus, the better you become at identifying them. I like this theory.

[1] In fairness, they have started paying me. I became bored of being humanity's benefactor once I realised it didn't improve the chances of anyone sleeping with me.

[2] Partially this was because of the bad memories. I had to turn up at eight in the morning, having been banned from ingesting caffeine. Which as anyone who has ever me me can attest, is roughly equivalent to forcing a codeine addict to go cold turkey and then kicking him in the testicles.

[3] You can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

[4] By "some sense" I mean that the word "churlish", which I can't imagine too many people slipping up on, was mixed in with words of almost infinite complexity which I can no longer remember. Had I got every one correct I have no doubt that Azathoth would have blazed into being and reduced the city to a nuclear wasteland


jamie said...

Dammit, why don't people do experiments like this on me? I'd find it fascinating too.

And I'm with you on the Oxford comma, 'twas perfectly appropriate :-)

Out of interest, what specific situations/characters in the Hyperion books got you thinking about empathy?

SpaceSquid said...

Towards the end Sol has that epiphany about the nature of love and of empathy, and about how those that lack empathy can't actually understand how it works as a concept. They might think they've got it worked out, they have the blue-print, but it can no more replicate the actual concept than an anatomy textbook can allow you to make a baby.

Seriously, go to the psychology department and volunteer. If they're anything like ours they'll be delighted to have you.