Friday, 4 July 2014

Electric Shocks and The Fetishisation of Nothingness

When I was a kid one of my favourite toys at my grandparent's house was an antique electric shock machine. You had to hold the handles while someone cranks the other wheel, at which point you'd be electrocuted. This was great fun, I could test my own pain thresholds, goad other relatives into trying it, and try to work out how it worked. 

A study published yesterday tested this hypothesis, that anyone left alone in a room with an electric shock machine long enough will play with it. Turns out most don't, 24 out of 42 subjects didn't press the button at all during the 15 minute test period (after all experiencing one initial shock). Were I being cynical I'd say the authors then split their data by gender looking for headlines to justify the effort, which seems to have worked. Men, when left in a room for long enough with a big button and an electric shock machine, are a bit more likely than women to press it. On average they press it once or twice, though one guy (who was presumably trying/succeeding to break the equipment) did it 190 times.* AREN'T MEN DAFT.

The authors also tested how much people enjoyed dragging themselves into the psychology department and being told to sit quietly for 15 minutes. The results here don't really say very much, though we do get the magnificent line '49.3% reported enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint of the scale' as evidence people don't enjoy quiet contemplation. In other words- most people thought it was basically ok, probably followed by the statement 'I suppose, but I have no idea why you made me do it.' I don't really want this to turn into a 'Rory slags off papers in major journals' blog, that's far too much like hard work, so I'll move on, but if you have the time/money/access have a go yourself.

The paper came to my attention after being written up on almost every site going. Most of these write ups take all the exaggerations at face value, and add in a whole bunch of fun conventional wisdom, so much of what I'm going to slag off here isn't really the researchers fault. Unfortunately article after article presents this as proof modern society makes us stupid, technology is taking us to hell in a handcart. We all want to seem a little baffled by the present day, it sets us apart from the masses, and it's much easier to do this looking backwards than forwards. Kids today, with their minidisc players and pokemon games are so distracted by trivialities they never stop to think, they're mindless consumer automatons.** The natural conclusion of the story is some philosophy fresher will make a link with Nietzche and write something profound sounding about pain, fear and the abyss. Let me know when you find it.

There's also a curious conception of 'thinking' here, where 'thinking' is the sort of thing we do silently by ourselves with no external stimulation, or that at the very least this sort is superior to more ad hoc insights. In the absence of anything else, we're falling back onto representative heuristics of what wisdom is. Probably an old white guy reclining in a leather chair with a pipe. True thinkers are freed by their own privilege from the insufferable burden of doing anything.

I think there's a better way to think about the results. Let's divide the world into button pressers and non-pressers. The non-pressers are happy to take the word of the experimenters, sit quietly contemplating life the universe and their own navels, and not get hurt. But psychologists lie all the time, people who volunteer for experiments know this. The pressers want to test it, to see if there is anything more. Here the man who electrocuted himself 190 times becomes something of an unintentional enlightenment hero. He's not hiding from his own thoughts, he's learning.

Just very very slowly.

*At this point we usually mutter something about culture (or patriarchy, if you're that way inclined) and run away, but I'll leave that for another time.

**There are no time series, and no significant effects of age or gadget usage, but don't let that get in the way of a nice tale.

At least nursery school potato prints hold the promise their analysis of society may get more sophisticated over time.