Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Stupid of the Week #6: This One Study I Did in College

True story:

The best thing about being an undergrad is the easy money from studies, especially the psych studies where you don't actually have to do anything. I once participated in a study at the University of Chicago where they flashed words at you on a computer screen and you had to classify the word as "good" or "bad." The words were always obvious things, like "joy" or "arsenic."

Between words, they flashed a screen in black and white pixels that, according to the script at the beginning, was just meaningless filler that didn't represent anything. Sometimes it did indeed appear meaningless, but as the study went on, an image started to appear. To me it looked for all the world like the Raisin Bran sun.

If you don't recognize this, I'm sorry your childhood sucked.

Seeing even the vague, pixelated impression of that happy sun before me, gleefully pouring not one but TWO scoops of raisins into every box, I was struck suddenly with an overwhelming feeling of benevolence toward the universe. Pure joy radiated from every pore. I loved everything. Everything was good.

The computer screen flashed the word "cockroach" at me right then, and I reflexively pressed the "good" button, my one error in the entire study.

When I finished the program, the lab administrator came in to interview me. She asked if I saw anything in the supposed nonsense image that appeared between words.

"Yes," I said, "I saw a happy sun."

"Uh, what?"

"A happy sun. You know, like the Raisin Bran sun," I held up my hands with my elbows jutting out like I was holding two scoopers. The admin just stared at me as though I had just told her I was a dragon. Eventually she asked:

"So, did you see a face?"

"Well, yes, it couldn't very well be a happy sun if it didn't have a face, could it?"

"Right. So, this face, did it look like any particular race to you?"

"What are you talking about? The sun doesn't have a race. He shines on us all equally and distributes copious amounts of raisins to people of all colors."

"Ok, so no race then," she muttered as she made notes on her clipboard that clearly said "exclude this crazy person's data from the study."

After a minute or so, it dawned on me. Broad nose. Large lips. Heavy brow. What my pure, innocent, color-blind psyche had interpreted as a playful cartoon celestial body was supposed to be a black man.


Not this:

Instead of seeing a happy sun and mistakenly identifying cockroaches as good things, I was supposed to see a black man and miscategorize butterflies and rainbows as bad because of my subliminal racist tendencies. Oh. I see.

Interestingly enough, we actually all are subliminally racist in a similar way literally at birth. Showing a newborn infant the face of a black person automatically triggers the fear center of their brain. But the response is not to noses, lips and foreheads, it's to color. If you painted a white person's face black and showed that to the infant, it would react the same way. It also doesn't matter if the baby is black or white. Our baby brains are wired to think "dark = scary."

Of course it is grossly unfair to classify such a reaction as racism. This innate response probably has more to do with infants being able to see dark things more clearly. But it is interesting nonetheless, in an "oh, huh" kind of way.

So then I left the study and found myself unexpectedly face to face with my then-nemesis. We immediately drew weapons and fired.

But that's a story for another day.

Nighty night,

S. Misanthrope