When the researcher becomes the research

Last week I had an unusual opportunity of switching places with a lab mouse for experiments. Before you imagine dissections or other gruesome procedures, let me clarify. I actually volunteered for psychology experiments at Stanford. I have always been interested in psychology studies, so when I found out that they required ‘subjects’ for some experiments, I thought why not become a part of the statistics.

The experiment was short and simple: I had to simply guess how long I could immerse my hand in ice water and then not-so-simply do it! If I succeeded in bearing this torture for my estimated amount of time, I would earn 50 cents for every 10 seconds. Needless to say, at the guessing stage most people overshoot. At least I did; my guess was 60 sec (amounting to 3$), but already 30 sec in ice water was unbearable! So, I lost the potential money, but at least luckily kept my hand.

The second part of the experiment involved a questionnaire  where I then had the option of influencing the next person’s hand-immersing time. For example: if the person guesses 120 sec, I could interfere and change his/her time to a more realistic time, say 40 sec. There were further complications that I wont go into, but they mainly involved potential money loss if I chose to interfere.

Now, here’s the interesting part. My initial decision regarding the questionnaire was to not interfere in any scenarios at all. After all, I did not know the person who would do this experiment the next day, and in worst case he/she would just lose some money. But, once I was actually posed with the guess-times, something changed. I stuck to my decision of not interfering for guesses up to 100 sec, but anything more than that made me feel guilty. I could imagine and extrapolate the pain that I had endured after freezing my hand till it was numb, and I HAD to interfere to stop this person from making such a bad decision! This change in heart was mainly an empathetic reaction to protect a stranger from future pain. 

I do not know the results from other volunteers, so I cannot comment on this study. Just generally speaking though, this experience is a good example of the manipulating effect of circumstances on our behavior. Until I had actually experienced the discomfort of ice water, I had overestimated my tolerance and underestimated my empathy. When I used to read about such psychology experiments in books, I would often try to predict how I would react ‘if I was in that situation’. In fact, for many real life situations we often substitute ourselves in other peoples lives and second guess their decisions. Now, from first hand experience I know the answer to this question is… I don’t know.



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