Wednesday, December 2, 2009

95% of all statistics are wrong.

While perusing Craigslist for jobs in October, I stumbled across a chance to make some easy money. Georgia State University had a posting for a study on the effects of alcohol on reaction time. It seemed they would get you drunk and see if your ability to respond to simple stimuli would be affected. Hmm, a chance to make some money while getting a few free drinks? Of course I’m going to call them.

After the initial telephone interview to make sure I was an acceptable candidate for the study, I was brought in to fill out some preliminary forms and questionnaires. This is when I became skeptical. I was asked to fill out a packet of about 40 pages. The first two pages related to my drinking habits and views on alcohol consumption, the other 38 related to my views on homosexuality. Hmm.

While making my way through college, I took a few psychology courses. In these classes, of course, we discussed different aspects of performing studies and different methods of collecting data. One of which was to lie to the participants to get a more realistic set of responses from them. I had this information going through my head immediately, and tried to figure out exactly what they were looking for during my time at the study center. I figured that whatever they told me, they were actually doing the opposite.

I showed up to the study center this morning to go through the second part of the study, in which we would be either drinking alcohol or straight orange juice (to act as the control group). I was told before I imbibed my first beverage that I would be a member of the control group. My first thought was, “Bummer, I was looking forward to drinking free vodka at nine in the morning.” Then, I realized that since they told me I was not going to be drinking alcohol, that I would most likely be getting alcohol. Maybe they were testing the affects of our outlook on being drunk instead of our reaction time.

I had seen a video of one such study in high school. The people performing the study went to a bar and bought nonalcoholic beer for everyone under the guise of a free promotion, or something along those lines. As the night went on, they interviewed some random drinkers and asked them how they were doing.

“I’ve had, like three pitchers. I’m pretty fucking hammered!” they would say.

At the end of the night they revealed to the group that the beer was nonalcoholic and you could watch everyone sober up in about thirty seconds. Turns out, getting drunk is as much as a mental trick as it is a physical impairment.

So, when they gave me my first glass of orange juice, I drank it while analyzing the taste for hints of vodka. Nothing. Then they gave me another, told me to finish it in ten minutes and then they came back in with a breathalyzer. This is where another flag went off. Why would they need to analyze my blood alcohol content if they were just giving me orange juice? I knew something was up. Truth is, I did feel a little different after the two cups of orange juice. But drunk? I don’t think so. It was probably the fact that there are vitamins and nutrients in orange juice that my body isn’t used to since I live a pretty unhealthy lifestyle.

“On a scale of one to eleven, eight being the most drunk you’ve ever been and eleven being even more drunk than that, how do you feel?” they asked me.


Honestly, if they had put vodka in that drink and asked me the same question, my response would most likely have been the same. I’m from Wisconsin, two drinks are basically like stretching my legs before running a marathon.

They had me sitting in a room while the other participant sat in another room down the hall. The idea was that we would compete with each other. A thing on the computer would tell us when to release the space bar and whoever let go second would receive a shock.

The room consisted of a computer in front of me, a camera behind that and a television next to the camera. The reason for the camera, I was told, was so the experimenter wouldn’t have to walk between the two rooms to make sure things were going correctly.

Before the test began, the TV sprung to life and I could see the other participant sitting by the computer, fidgeting with the shocking mechanism that was attached to his fingers, just like me. I could hear the experimenter say that the other participant’s ride was there. This was another flag. I was told that if we drank alcohol that we would have to sit around for up to eight hours, until our BAC came back down to normal. The experimenter walked into the room and asked the other participant how drunk he felt. He responded with “six.” Six? You’re only two points away from being the drunkest you have ever been after two measly drinks? Either this guy is the biggest lightweight ever, an embellisher, or a liar.

Then, his friend walked in, another dude. They gave each other a big hug, and discussed their plans for going to a movie later tonight. They kissed, said “I love you,” and the friend left. This is when I remembered all of the questions from my last visit about homosexuality. I figured I had the experiment sussed out. After this, they had a “problem” with the TVs and they were turned off.

The experiment started. Whoever won the task of releasing the space bar first got to shock the other person on an ascending level of power from one to ten. Of course, I immediately figured I would fry the bastard on ten the whole time strictly on the basis of it being funnier to tell everyone that I ruined some guy’s morning. By the time the experiment started, however, I figured out that this is exactly what they wanted me to do. They wanted to see if I hated gay people and would punish this guy strictly for his sexual preference. So, I elected to give him the lightest shock possible.

The shocks went exactly as I had thought they would. First they gave me the lightest ones, to build a sense of camaraderie, I guess, before giving me the largest shocks towards the end. They wanted me to retaliate by shocking the hair off of the other guy. But I stuck with the light shocks.

After the test was finished, they handed me another questionnaire to see if I hated gay people yet. Nope. Then the administrator came in to tell me what the study was all about.

“You are the only participant here today. The video we showed you was recorded earlier with two actors reading from a script.” Duh. “The test was rigged so you would receive a predetermined level of shocks throughout the course of the experiment.” Duh. “We were actually testing your level of aggression towards homosexuals to see if it would grow with the increased level of shocks.” Duh. “You don’t seem too surprised by this.”

I told him that I had basically known the study was about views on homosexuality from the first day I came in. “You should probably try to add a few more questions about alcohol to off-set the insane amount of questions about homosexuality in that 40 page packet.”

He just laughed and told me that he thought it was a little easy to see through as well. Then he told me that some people saw through it like I did, but 95% of the people buy into it.

This confuses me. I’m guessing that most of the participants in the study are college students and I’m also guessing that a large percentage of college students, at one point of another, take a psychology course as part of their general requirements. The methodology of these studies is generally covered in the introductory courses. So, people should know about these kind tricks and tactics.

Regardless, I got $35 out of the experience and something to talk about when an awkward silence fills the room. It’s too bad they have to throw out all of the information they got from me. Sorry, GSU, for wasting your time. But, thanks for the OJ and the cash.

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