The waiver she had signed at the beginning of the experiment included the phrase “this study may involve deception.” That should have been her first clue (seriously, if you ever participate in a study of any kind, definitely look for that one). But she was too angry to listen as I tried to point out that critical line right above her signature. After listening to her scream at me for several minutes, I finally dropped the paper and simply said, “What do you want me to do?” Then she covered her face, burst into tears and ran out of the room. And that was when I learned a very important lesson about people: They have very strong emotions about what they eat and how they eat it. And who watches them eat it.
Research Assistants in Dark Basements
Back in the day, when I was a psychology student in need of a summer job, I signed on as a research assistant to a prominent professor. This had two major benefits: one, I got to learn about how to conduct a good study and two, I got to do some really awesome things to unsuspecting people – a favorite pastime of mine and one I highly recommend if you ever get bored.
All studies involving human subjects had to pass an ERB (Ethical Review Board) first so you’d think people would be safe but you’d be amazed at what got through. My classmates and I did the silly and standard stuff like filming people from behind a one-way window to see what they’d do alone with a mirror (pop zits was a biggie) but I hit research gold when I got selected for the Ice Cream Study.
The Set Up
The idea was to bring people in and tell them we were doing a taste test of new flavors of ice cream for a local creamery. All they would have to do is try some of each new flavor and then rate them on a survey sheet. For this they would get $50. Nice, eh?
There was a catch. What we were really studying was how much ice cream people would eat if they thought nobody would know (i.e. they threw away their own bowls) versus how much they would eat if they thought somebody would know (i.e. I collected their bowls when they were finished) and if gender made a difference. All subjects were left alone in the “taste-testing” room.
My job was easy. I set up the room exactly the same before each subject. I measured out three bowls of 300 grams each of ice cream (about 9 cups total), much more than any person could presumably eat in one sitting. (Interesting aside: all 3 “flavors” were exactly the same – I scooped it all out of the same big bucket of the dairy equivalent of two-buck chuck.) And then for the group who got to throw away their own dishes, I weighed the garbage can. This would enable me to see how much ice cream the subject had eaten by weighing the can again after they left. Then I collected their surveys, paid them their money and headed back to my dank office to plug in the data.
This will not surprise you – the subjects who thought no one would know how much they ate, ate more than three times as much ice cream as those who knew I’d be picking up their bowls. Women were more apt to do this than men. This lead to a very interesting paper which I helped write and yet received no credit for (not that I’m still bitter like 7 years later or anything) in which the professor theorized that making people eat in front of others would help them lose weight, especially women who tended to hide when eating “bad” foods. I rather imagine that this would work – I always eat less with someone staring me down. Although that someone might get stabbed in the eye with a fork. Just saying.
The Real Results
The angry woman happened at the end of the study. It turned out she was the wife of one of the other professors in the department and heard about the “real” purpose of the study several days after completing it. She was one of the subjects who had eaten an embarrassing amount of cheap ice cream and now she knew that we all knew it. Especially me, The Garbage Can Weigher (Who Only Makes Minimum Wage Which Is Totally Not Enough To Put Up With This Kind of Crap). At first I thought I understood why she was so angry. We had deceived her and people do not like to be tricked (they also, apparently, do not like to read waivers before they sign them).
But when she burst into tears, I suddenly realized that it was not at all about the deception but rather that she felt ashamed of the amount of ice cream she had eaten. Being overweight and constantly dieting, ice cream held a strange power over her. It was not just a food, it was a moral judgment. And binging was the equivalent of a one-punch homicide. All of which was bad enough on its own (I can only imagine how she felt after she went home after eating nearly 9 cups of ice cream) but to be publicly shamed, even in the name of research, was more than she could bear. And for that I am truly sorry.
So I am curious, how would you have felt if you had participated in that study and then learned the real purpose later on? Ever participated in a study?
PS> Thank you all so much for your kind comments & encouragement & e-mails on my last post. You will be proud of me for not exercising today. I only had minor panic attacks but no smurfs appeared so all was well. Although you can still send me socks if you want to Lucas;)