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Free will

A study from the University of Birmingham has just revealed that you can tell a lot about the intelligence level of a person by comparing their relative hands and head sizes.  To conduct the test you simply place your thumbs in your ears and then see if you can touch your index fingers together on top of your head.  If you can then you are likely to have an above average IQ.

Ok, that’s completely made up, but how many of you just tried it?

What I actually wanted to talk about today was free will, and how much of the time we spend just blindly following cues and justifying it afterwards.  As animals we are all apparently very easy to manipulate, particularly when we’re not really concentrating.   Ok, the opening paragraph to this blog was just a silly trick, but marketing professionals, politicians, salesmen and certainly magicians are adept at making us behave the way they want us to behave, no matter how much in control we might think we are at the time.

It is important to remember that our survival instincts have grown up from evolutionary routes, where making the wrong decision at a critical moment could well have devastating consequences.  We often don’t have enough time to evaluate all the options available to us, so we fall back on rules of thumb, short cut behaviours which have proven to be successful in the past and so we rely on to help us in the future.  Of course, as soon as you have a short cut behaviour, then you have something which can be manipulated.

As an example of this Ellen Langer conducted a series of experiments to test the potential rule ‘asking for favours will be more successful if you provide a reason’.  In her experiments she attempted to jump the line at the photocopier by asking if she could push in front and asked for permission in a variety of different ways.  She found that how the request was phrased had a radical effect on the responses she got.

If she asked “Excuse me, I have five pages.  May I use the Xerox machine?” only 60% of people would let her jump the queue.  Phrasing the same request differently, “Excuse me, I have five pages.  May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” allowed her to jump the queue in 94% of cases.

What is really interesting however was her third attempt.

Asking “Excuse me, I have five pages.  May I use the Xerox machine because I need to make some copies?” was still successful in 93% of cases, even though she didn’t provide a real reason!  It seems that the rule is sound and can be triggered simply by the appropriate phrasing, irrespective of the actual content.

Now that particular example doesn’t demonstrate why you might follow instructions like the one in this first paragraph, but I would speculate that it has something to do with the authority suggested by a claimed university study, along with a desire to gain an independent affirmation of your own intelligence.  The power of the former was demonstrated in the famous experiments by Stanley Milgram.

His most famous experiment consisted of a pair of subjects, one of whom was apparently connected to a machine which dispensed electric shocks.  The other subject was then instructed by a supervisor, dressed appropriately in a white scientists jacket, that the experiment was looking at how memory changed in different circumstances, and asked them to teach the first subject a set of word pairs.  When the subject got a pair wrong, the second subject was instructed to administer a series of electric shocks.  These shocks increased in voltage for every further incorrect answer.

Of course, in actuality there were no actual shocks administered and the first subject was an actor, but what was telling was how far people were prepared to continue administrating the supposed shocks just because they were told to by an authority figure.  Even when the supposed failing subject began banging on the wall and screaming in pain, many participants continued the experiment.  Most expressed discomfort about the effects to the supervisor, but seemed to require his approval before they would stop, demonstrating the power of the effect.  This would also suggest a need to maintain consistency with previous actions as another manipulating force, but this post is already long enough so I’ll save that for another time!

Now send this post to a friend and see if they put their thumbs in their ears.


Posted in psychology.

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