Yale has a long history of manipulating people’s minds for science.
As I sat in a darkened room, having my thoughts electronically siphoned from my head, I kept coming back to some of that history, and wondering what I had gotten myself into.
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Perhaps one of the most famous examples of questionable Yale psychology is the Milgram experiment. In 1961, in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, Stanley Milgram tested resistance to authority by commanding subjects to administer electric shocks to a fellow subject (actually an actor). As the voltage got dangerously high, the actor banged on the wall and began to complain about his heart condition. A staid, lab-coated “professor” stood in the corner of the room and encouraged the subject to continue. Incredibly, sixty-five percent of the subjects administered the full 450 volts, despite the wailing of the “weak-hearted” learner.
While I fidgeted under my electrode cap, what concerned me about Milgram’s experiment weren’t the results — shocking though they were — but the way in which he forced the psychological community to take new stock of something that had been long ignored: the role of the subject in an experiment. Most modern psychologists consider Milgram’s treatment of his subjects careless, manipulative, and possibly damaging. Criticism of his approach has caused people to look at experiments from a different point of view, thinking about what it would be like to be a subject before designing the questions they want answered. Or, at least, I hoped so.
At any rate, that was what I was trying to do. For every experiment done here at Yale, large numbers of people must be recruited as subjects. Some students may only do one or two during their time here, but others make a living off ten-dollar psych experiments and five-minute-survey candy bars. I signed up for a number of wacky, brain-prodding experiments in order to find out who these people were and what it was like to stand on their side of the screen.
And so I ended up wearing an electrode cap, watching a series of faces flash on a screen. The cap was a pretty spectacular device. It transformed me into some kind of robo-Medusa, with wildly colored wires spilling out of my head in every direction, held to my scalp with cloth, mysterious goop, and the fervent efforts of a research assistant who, when she wasn’t poking at my head with a Q-tip, tried to make polite conversation.
“I wish I had taken the test before I was debriefed on it. But now I know what it’s about, so I can’t take it.” I nodded sympathetically and dislodged some wiring. She frowned and poked around some more with the Q-tip.
I admired her for being open about the trick, because the first thing you learn in a career as a subject is that every experiment is a ruse. I had already ripped off countless flyer tabs for on-campus studies. As an 18-25 non-smoking female, I did pretty well for myself and was soon running around, getting peeled open by what seemed like every psychology grad student on campus. I knew about the trick.
It usually fell into one of three categories.
The first and most amusing category was the “invisible friend.” In roughly half the studies I did, there was a fellow subject “just down the hall” or “right next door!” but we were always separated for some vaguely explained scientific reason. At the end of the experiment, I always found out that, like real invisible friends, my next-door buddy had never existed at all. Once I was even offered a prize if I beat the mysterious “girl down the hall” in Space Invaders. Not only did she not exist, but the prize was also a sham (a pity; I creamed her).
But I could rule this one out for the electrode-cap study, as it was pretty clear that they couldn’t pretend to wrangle two people into this getup at the same time.
A second category seemed more likely at first: the fake fact. This one makes you want to smack yourself in the forehead as soon as you find it out. Though the fake fact has a number of incarnations, my favorite occured during a study that asked me to describe how various household objects worked using a list of their parts. A dutiful Yale student, I described the function of all the parts in exquisite detail, regardless of whether or not I knew what they were for. Turns out, in each list of parts, one was entirely made up.
This, too, became an unlikely candidate as the electrode-cap experiment progressed; all I was initially asked to do was identify the gender of faces that flashed on a screen. Unfortunately, as much of a veteran as I was at these studies, the third category slipped my mind: the pop quiz. This one is easily the most devilish of the three, because even if you see it coming, you are never prepared when it arrives. When faced with an experimental pop quiz, I felt like I was back in high school, stumbling into first period half-awake and realizing, suddenly, that my history teacher had that tricky look in his eye.
The majority of the studies in which I took part, electrode-cap escapade included, could be taken for cash or credit — course credit. Berkeley Master Marvin Chun, who teaches a popular introduction to psychology course, believes that experiments should impart something to subjects as well as researchers. He is so convinced of the connection between learning and experimentation that he invites his introductory psychology students to participate in studies as part of their grade.
“We want students to have hands-on experience,” he said. “There is a huge difference between reading the results of a survey and doing a survey yourself. You get a sense of what goes on in people’s heads when they answer the questions.” The studies for which students volunteer not only go through a rigorous screening (which puts a stop to any “unethical studies that we aren’t allowed to do anymore,” Chun said), they also go through a second review to make sure that they are of particular educational value for their subjects.
Chun said that participating in experiments has strongly shaped his career as a researcher. When he was an undergraduate, he participated in “something like two or three a week. I wanted to get into everything I could. Of course, the extra five bucks… I didn’t mind that either.”
One of the most memorable projects that he participated in was at UC Berkeley, and it taught him a rather unexpected lesson. For the study, Chun had to eat plain yogurt for seven days in a row, filling out surveys about the yogurt along the way. “I didn’t like yogurt at the time,” he said, with an apologetic wince. “I think it was maybe the only study in my life that I wasn’t able to finish. I quit and I brought all the leftover yogurt back into the lab, and I was terrified. I felt as though I was betraying them… I just didn’t have the will power to eat this yogurt. They were extremely gracious about it. They even paid me. They were so understanding, and that made me realize the importance of treating your subjects with respect.” He then added, “That research — the one study I couldn’t finish — later turned out to be part of a project that led to someone earning a Nobel Prize!”
Just as Chun had assured me, all of the Yale experiments I participated in were both respectful and educational. But this doesn’t mean they weren’t also deceptive. In fact, most of what I learned came from being fooled again and again and again.
While I watched faces flash up on a screen — pushing “1” for men and “2” for women — I began to see a curious pattern, but I didn’t quite know what to do with it. It dawned on me that an overwhelming percentage of the photos were either of African- or Asian-Americans. I felt the electrodes poking into my mind, searching for some kind of racist brainwave. I told myself that, no matter what the cost, I would refuse to emit it; I wasn’t racist and they weren’t going to catch me in this “guess the gender” distraction trick. I thought distinctly good thoughts at all of the faces, with a concentration that I rarely muster for exams.
Of course, most study participants don’t volunteer for the scientific value so much as for the monetary one. Any education is foisted on them in the process.
Students are the ideal test subjects, because they have flexible schedules, curiosity, and a weakness for petty cash and Snapples. Researchers take advantage of these characteristics and recruit undergraduates heavily. In fact, these tests are such a popular way to make a quick buck that there is an entire subpopulation of students who subsist (or at least party) almost exclusively on cash made by participating in studies. Between the Psychology Department, the School of Management, and the School of Medicine, there is a plethora of options available to any open-minded, cash-strapped student.
Chris Shirley is an extreme example. Though he has a steady job working for STEP, Shirley regularly supplements his income by offering his body and mind to science. A quick, friendly presence, he had a straightforward answer to why he participates in studies: “Money.” And it certainly is profitable: though he started out with simple psychology and SOM tests, he is now opting for the more intense end of the spectrum, volunteering for clinical studies. The medical school is not stingy. “Thirty dollars an hour for sitting in an MRI machine? Yeah. Okay.”
But Shirley also has some quirkier ulterior motives. He spoke excitedly about an upcoming project, and I could see why the medical school was so ready to have him — risks did not seem to be a concern. His next study will involve at least three weeks of a high-protein diet, two weekend hospital stays, and a 24-hour period in which he has to collect all of his urine. He was especially excited about the chance to carry around urine samples. “It’s just out of the ordinary. I imagine having a backpack with it in there. It just seems so naughty. Not, like, naughty, but…I just like the idea.”
For Shirley, the world of studies is an oddly entertaining, stimulating way to make a buck. “I don’t know, it’s kind of exciting…it takes you out of the normal structure of life.” As an experimental subject, Shirley has found a way to redefine the idea of “work.”
Lynn Saltonstall, a cheerful Yale art history graduate student, has a slightly different take on the life of the subject. Though she does admit that cash is a nice motivator for participating in studies — “It’s as convenient as going to the ATM,” she said with a grin — she mostly does it for other reasons. Saltonstall has been participating in studies ever since she was an undergraduate here. At first she did it as a favor to her psych-major friends who often needed to test research projects before they ran them in the general public, and then she did it for the money. Now, perhaps most interestingly, she does it “because I feel like I’m contributing to research, and learning something, too.”
For Saltonstall, participating in experiments has made her more aware of her own limits and abilities. “Usually when I do a study, I walk away thinking about it. One of my favorite studies that I did was this smell study” — a study on synesthesia in which she had to pair smells with each other, using a color-coding system — “even though I was bad at it.” Other studies, even one in which she actually got shocks in connection to certain stimuli and actions, were equally interesting and challenging for her.
But whether students do this for money or science or both, there is no denying that it is not an average job, and it comes with a very peculiar range of side effects. When experiments go wrong, or experimenters lose their respect for their subjects, the feeling of having someone inside your mind can be distinctly uncomfortable. Saltonstall remembers one thinly-veiled study on eating disorders that went particularly awry. After ordering food from prepared menus in a “restaurant study,” she and her friends were given an invasive questionnaire. Instead of revealing something about her, they tried to pigeonhole her and her friends into categories that they didn’t fit. “It had really leading questions like, ‘I consciously think about the calories I’m burning when I’m exercising.’ I wouldn’t normally, but it’s on the machine display right in front of me! So I had to answer yes.” This probing left Saltonstall feeling “very uncomfortable, not happy with myself at all. The whole thing felt like a big trick.”
Like Saltonstall, Shirley admits to sometimes feeling the hazard of letting others into his brain. In particular, he says, “I hate product studies. You would go, take the product, open it up, smell it, eat it, and then answer a shitload of questions about it…I felt like I was being used.” Though he doesn’t mind psychologists doing this, he feels uncomfortable with the idea of people “taking advantage of me for profit.”
When it came time for the trick in my electrode cap study, I, too felt uncomfortably exposed, particularly when I discovered what the trick was: a pop quiz. When I had finished identifying the gender of the faces, a graduate student entered and told me that I was now going to perform a surprise recall test. Once again, faces began to flash on the screen, but this time the question was different: “Have you seen this face before?” (though it might as well have said, “Do all Asians look the same to you?”). I felt as though someone had torn a band-aid off my mind and exposed something vulnerable underneath. Was I remembering white faces better? Was I to blame if my brain lumped “others” into a blank, forgettable category? I wasn’t sure if I wanted to find that out.
For Hans Schoenburg, though, letting someone into his brain had an even more direct effect than this.
Even if it weren’t for his shaved head and long scar, Schoenburg would be easy to recognize; his tall frame and honest face stand out anywhere. He was refreshingly forthright about his experiences as a subject.
Last spring, Schoenburg decided to participate in a functional MRI study, which involved taking a low-resolution, real-time image of his brain. He did it on a whim: “I literally just saw a poster in the post office. It paid fifty dollars to participate.” Both he and his friends had done a few studies before, but mostly at the business school — “My suite got really into that. One of my friends made like 900 dollars” — but nothing at the medical school.
It was a gray, depressing walk to Yale-New Haven, and when he arrived, he had a sense that it wouldn’t get much better. “They made me sign a waiver, and on it said…that they would refer me to another doctor if they saw something. I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s going to be me. I just feel it.’ I didn’t know, but I thought it.” Sure enough, as he focused on the experiment’s tasks, the MRI revealed much more than just his reactions to the tests.
The researchers quickly told Schoenburg to see another doctor “maybe not this afternoon, but definitely tomorrow.” The next day, he got another MRI, which confirmed the researchers’ suspicions: he had a brain tumor. But the scan seemed to show that it was benign, so they scheduled a surgery for a convenient time to remove it. When it was taken out, it became clear that the tumor had actually been cancerous. “My summer went from ‘Yay! You recovered from brain surgery; you can go do your internship now!’ to ‘You need to go to New York and start radiation therapy so that you can be done before school starts.’”
Though he recognizes how lucky he was to discover his tumor so early, at the time it hardly seemed like a blessing. Despite the fact that his surgery and treatments have gone as well as anyone could expect, they are not without their side effects. “I’m bald on half my head now; that’s why I shave it,” he mentioned, pointing to the thin, clean scar running down the side of his head. “My short-term memory is total crap now. I trip all the time, fall off my bike.” To deal with the stress of the treatment process, he has even started to see a cancer therapist, or a psycho-oncologist (“It just sounds like a crazy oncologist, I know”), who specializes in helping patients work through the side effects of cancer and its treatments. Especially difficult is the fact that brain cancer has an incredibly high recurrence rate, often lying dormant for as long as eight years before it returns. Schoenburg’s experience has been so intense, in fact, that none of his friends has gotten an MRI since his tumor was discovered. “I think they just decided that ignorance is bliss.”
But there are also positive sides. When asked whether or not this whole process has changed him, he said, “Yes, yes, yes. It’s been very challenging. It’s like not only have I changed as a person, it’s — it changed me. I didn’t really have a choice. I wasn’t trying to grow or anything. It’s been hard, but at the same time I can rise above it and that’s a really good feeling…I’m not afraid of much any more…you can only fear so much.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Milgram experiment is the least known. Though part of its fame comes from its abuse of its subjects, eighty-four percent of the participants actually said later that they were “glad” or “very glad” to have participated, and fifteen of the remaining sixteen percent responded neutrally. Many wrote to thank Milgram, even offering assistance or asking to join his research team.
I never did find out the results of my electrode experiment; they were committed to some computer file before I had a chance to get at them. But I still got something out of the process. Whether or not I remembered white faces best, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I look at faces and how my mind sorts them without even asking me first. I suddenly became conscious of a part of my brain that I had never paid attention to — an important and telling one — and, as unpleasant as that realization was, I am glad I had it.
Being a subject can be invasive, uncomfortable, and often surprising. Yet people still seem to appreciate discovering what’s hidden in their minds and bodies. It’s easy to find such information in popular science articles, but there is something deeply alluring about pushing the button yourself, about feeling your own biases slip down the wires, or seeing a color picture of your brain. We are teeming with secrets we have never even considered, and letting experimenters uncover them can be fascinating, amusing — even frightening. There is more in it than a quick dollar or a chocolate bar. There is satisfaction, and self-knowledge.