Thursday, March 08, 2007

Consciousness and YES/NO Psych Questionnaires

The questions were of the form "does x feel happy/sad/pride" where x were specific examples of mammals, insects, plants, machines, and natural objects. For example, "do ants feel sad?" and my task for one hour was to answer "yes" or "no" as quickly as possible; there were literally thousands of examples, presented every 2 seconds nonstop for 45 minutes. This was supposed to tell them about my "attributions of consciousness". What?

[Idea: Why didn't they test just ten examples from each of the categories?? 1) That wouldn't take an hour, and an hour is the canonical amount of time students are willing to . 2) To increase statistical power. Another, more efficient, question structure could be based on adaptive learning, where the computer generates each question based on the previous answers, so that it moves from general to specific, eventually oscillating around my indecision point (assuming a scale of consciousness graded from most similar to humans to least...this is assuming that people aren't more likely to say that a motorcycle can feel happy than a worm)]

IS this what science has come to? Who cares? These guys get public funding for this? What's worst is how insulting this is to me; that my nuanced feelings, opinions, hopes and fears about the realm of consciousness could be reduced to yes or no. No possibility for discussion / completely dehumanized: do they really think they're plumbing the depths of my soul in this artificial setting? Or, by "controlling all extraneous variables" will they only find only what they're looking for? I'll never believe another psych study based on bored college students pressing yes or no as rapidly as possible. College students are some of the most dumb and desperate people in society. Most of those guys were frat boy dropouts, hung over and world-weary; the quiet desperation of years of unreflective failure necessary to motivate young men to throw away their hours of youth for pocket change.

My strategy was twofold: first, panic and prepare to leave, but then rationalize myself into staying. I already sit inside staring at a screen all day anyway. Just relax, learn to accept things as they are. You are in a comfortable chair in a room of meticulously immaculate and barren cubicles. Is this hell? Purgatory? The ultimate aspiration of hegemonic standardization, the real essence of school and work and society? You've already started, already committed. Don't change horses in midstream. Impossible to rebel anyway; resistance is futile. If you leave now, shouldn't logically you also leave your job, turn off and drop out of civilization entirely? No, remain calm. I took my shoes off, relaxed my face into its most natural wide-relaxed expression, and drifted off while letting my fingers do the walking over the amazingly banal cavalcade of animals, plants, and machines. Such cacophony in the world, and to think that this is only a fraction of the things we have put words to: boulder, giraffe, falcon, daffodil, desert, taxi cab.

In the end I took my $10 but couldn't look the experimenter in the eye. And maybe I'm just paranoid, but I couldn't help thinking that that was the point of the study, that the real test was what it always is: will you take the money and shut up, or cause a riot? I've always been a reasonable fellow. But I don't believe anyone in that room was conscious.

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