Heard a fascinating interview of Malcolm Galdwell on NPR this weekend. He mentioned a couple of different psychological tests which question the foundations of our understanding about free will.
The first test was called the Poster Test, which Gladwell explains here:
[A]sking people to think about what they want causes them to change their opinion of what they want, in fact it screws up their ability to understand and recognize what they want. This problem in psychology is called the Perils of Introspection Problem, and a lot of research has been done by a guy named Tim Wilson at U.V.A. and he once did this very simple experiment called the Poster Test.
And the Poster Test is you got a bunch of posters in a room, you bring in some college students in, and you say ‘pick any poster you want, take it home’. And they do that. Second group is brought in and you say, ‘pick any poster you want, tell me why you want it, and then go home’. Couple of months passes, and he calls up all the students, and he asks, “That poster you got a couple of months back, do you like it?’ and the kids, who in the first group didn’t have to explain their choice, all liked their poster. And the kids in the second group who did have to explain, now they hate their poster. And not only that, the kids who had to explain their poster picked a very different kind of poster then the kids who didn’t have to explain their poster. So making people explain what they want changes their preference and changes their preference in a negative way, it causes them to gravitate toward something they actually weren’t interested in in the first place.
Now, there’s a wonderful little detail in this—that there were two kinds of posters in the room, there where Impressionist prints and then there were these photos of, you know, kitten hanging by bars that said, ‘Hang in there baby’. And the students who were asked to explain their preference overwhelmingly chose the kitten. And the ones who weren’t asked to explain overwhelmingly chose the Impressionist poster. And they were happy with their choice obviously, who could be happy with a kitten on their wall after 3 months? Now, why is that?
Why when you ask someone to explain their preference do they gravitate toward the least sophisticated of the offerings? Cause it’s a language problem. You’re someone, you know in your heart that you prefer the Impressionists but now you have to come up with a reason for your choice, and you really don’t have the language to say why you like the Impressionist photo. What you do have the language for is to say, ‘Well, I like the kitten cause I had a kitten when I was growing up,’ and you know … so forcing you to explain something when you don’t necessarily have the vocabulary and the tools to explain your preference automatically shifts you toward the most conservative and the least sophisticated choice. Now you see this time and time again in for example, market research.
That the act of getting someone in a room and asking them to explain their preference causes them to move away from the more sophisticated, more daring, more radical ideas. The classic example is All in the Family. When the first pilot was made back in the 70s, it was taken to ABC and ABC had a big room full of people, as many people as this, and they showed them the test and they asked them to rate the pilot, asked them to rate it on a scale of 1 to 100. You need 70 to get on the air basically. This All in the Family pilot got 40. An unbelievably low score. And the comments were, ‘well, the real problem is Archie Bunker, he needs to be a little softer, more nurturing, more of a caring father.’ That was people’s response. So what did ABC do? They passed on it. Guys went to CBS, CBS tested it, did really poorly, but some guy at the top of CBS really liked it, and said, well why not, let’s just play it, they put it on the air and it was one of the most lucrative sitcom franchises in the history of television. So what does this mean?
Does this mean we can’t trust people at all? Maybe. What is really means, though, is that there is a class of products that are difficult for people to interpret. Some things really are ugly and when we say that they’re ugly they really are ugly and we’re always gonna think their ugly. They’re never going to be beautiful. But there’s another class of products which we see and we don’t really know what we think, they challenge us, we don’t know how to describe them, and we end up, if we’re forced to explain ourselves, in calling them ugly because we can’t think of a better was to describe our feelings. And the real problem with asking people what they think about something is that we don’t have a good way to distinguish between these two states. We don’t have a good way of distinguishing between the thing that really is ugly and the thing that is radical and challenging and simply new and unusual.
And so often when we use the evidence of what people say, to determine what we ought to do, what we ought to go forward [with], we end up throwing out not just the things that ought to be thrown out, but the very things that are most meaningful, and have the potential to be most revolutionary.
There are, I think, two important lessons in that; the first is the one I dwell on in my book, which is simply that because of this fact people who come up with new ideas and new products or radical new things need to be very careful in how they interpret the evidence of consumers, the people that they ask about, random people whose opinions they seek. That we need to be very skeptical of ‘no’ and very skeptical of ‘ugly’ and very skeptical of ‘I don’t like that’. Particularly when we’re dealing with something that is radical and in some way challenging and difficult for someone to completely explain their feelings about. That’s one implication.
But the second implication, which is really one that’s more relevant to this discussion here, is that we’ve gotten really really good in recent years at describing all kinds of things about the way that human beings work and the way the mind operates. We understand genetics, we understand physiology, we have a whole vast array of knowledge now about why we do the things we do. But there is one area, perhaps the most important area of all, where we remain really really bad, and that is interpreting the contents of our own hearts, and as we go forward and learn more and more about human beings, I think we need to remember this fact, and to be humbled, because I’m not sure this is a mystery that we’re gonna solve.
The second experiment was simple. Take a person off the street and ask them to look at a picture of an average guy and ask them, "This is Joe. Do you like Joe or not?" They are also asked to hold a cup of coffee, although they are not let to believe that the coffee is part of the test. By outward appearances, everyone is given the same test, with no variation. However, there is one subtle variation: one group is given hot coffee and the other is given cold coffee. Few people believe the results, but time and again, people given the hot coffee say they like Joe and the people given cold coffee say they don't like Joe. (The inference here being that we subconsciously associate Joe the person with Joe, the nickname for coffee.)
Gladwell points out that we are vulnerable to racial bias when using the colors white and black to describe race. Though Gladwell is half-black, he was shocked to learn he himself has a negative bias against blacks. (Though Gladwell's book Blink deals with this in part, he added that Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will deals with the issue of racial bias more completely.)
The implications of these simple tests are staggering. How much of our decision making are we really in control of? How many of our choices are sculpted by mere circumstance? More concretely, how much of our entertainment is greenlit, or cancelled, based on poorly interpreted focus groups?
Finally, one has to wonder how John Stuart Mill and all the other 19th century philosophers who obsessed about the question of free will would respond when presented with these 21st century test results...