Odd Job: Participating in an MIT behavioral research study
“Hey. My name’s Jonathan,” I said into the microphone. Three other people and I sat around a square table, each of us stationed in front of a laptop, about to participate in a study on group thinking. But before we could begin, we had to test the microphones.
One of the other subjects, a woman in a pink scarf, started laughing. We had been there for maybe five minutes and I already disliked her. Everyone else and I were here to do a study, get paid and leave. But it felt like she was hoping for something more. Like maybe we would all become BFF’s who made each other mix CD’s and friendship bracelets.
A quiet girl in an Oxford shirt then said her name into the mic. Pink Scarf laughed harder. She wasn’t laughing at us. She was laughing with us. This woman actually thought that a) we were making jokes and b) they were funny. I didn’t like her.
A guy in his undershirt and a pair of gym shorts who looked like someone had just woken him up a few seconds ago then spoke into the microphone. “Hey, is this thing on?” He asked.
At this, Pink Scarf absolutely lost her shit. She started laughing so hard she couldn’t make herself stop in time to test her mic.
It was going to be a long study.
The researcher conducting the study explained that the four of us would be working together on a series of 31 tasks. The laptop screens were a sort of collaborative workspace. Anything one of us wrote, everyone else would be able to see and edit. She told us to take a few moments to become familiar with the program, then the tasks would start automatically.
“Hey guys,” I typed in the shared space.
“Ah, let’s have some fun with this.” Pink Scarf said. I wonder why I have the feeling that you and I have a different concept of fun. “Let’s type the word for the new Batman movie… Rise…” She then typed “Rise…” with a gleeful smile on her face like she had just created something hilarious. Ah, that’s why.
Our first assignment started: We were given a long passage of text and told to type as much of it as we could in the allotted time.
“I’m a slow typer.” Pink Scarf said. I’m shocked. “So I think someone else should type.”
“Well, we can all type onto the screen.” I explained the process we had just been introduced to literally seconds ago. “So maybe each of us should type a different portion of text.”
The passage popped up in front of us. “I’ll type the first paragraph,” Oxford Shirt volunteered. I liked Oxford Shirt.
“I’ll take the second.” I said.
“I’ll do the third,” offered Just Rolled Out of Bed.
“Well which should I do?” Asked Pink Scarf. I don’t know, the seventh?
“How about the fourth?” I said as though her question were totally valid.
Oxford Shirt and I plowed dutifully through our paragraphs. To the surprise of no one, Pink Scarf’s fingers moved across the keyboard mildly slower than tectonic plates. But most frustrating was that Just Rolled Out of Bed started typing his paragraph by placing his cursor directly in the middle of my paragraph, intersplicing his text with mine. “Does everyone want to make sure they’re putting their paragraphs in the right place?” I asked, not wanting to single him out.
“We are.” Everyone said. I stared at Just Rolled Out of Bed. Really? You think that’s right? You think the third paragraph starts in the middle of the second one?
“Okay, it just looks like the third paragraph may have gotten a bit jumbled,” I said as diplomatically possible.
“No, I’ve got the third one. It’s fine.” Just Rolled Out of Bed responded. I stared at him with a hatred that surprised me. Forty seconds later, we were running out of time. Ten seconds. Five. “Wait. I think I did this wrong,” Just Rolled Out of Bed said suddenly.
The task ended.
After a few more typing exercises, we were given five minutes to solve 20 multiple-choice questions on pattern recognition.
“Well, I think the first one is C” said Oxford shirt as the exercise began.
“I agree.” I said.
“And the next one is D.”
“Yup,” I said. “And three is C.”
“Oo, yeah it is.”
The two of us worked in sync moving through the numbers. Just Rolled Out of Bed occasionally moved his head like he was going to talk, only to settle back down silently. It was a movement I think I had seen performed by sloths on the nature channel.
“Ten seconds,” he announced.
“I think I got the first one.” Pink Scarf told us. Go fuck yourself. “Oh wait, we already have the first one.” Yup, that’s the one we figured out first.
“Yeah we’re onto the seventh one now,” I explained.
We progressed from task to task, with Pink Scarf finding a way to do something frustrating on each one, and Just Rolled Out of Bed threatening to break a Guiness record for inactivity, while Oxford Shirt and I did everything.
As we sat looking at a grid of images, tasked with figuring out which image appeared the most times in the grid (I wanted to split up the responsibilities of counting how many of each image appeared on the screen. Pink Scarf wanted to do this one by feel), Pink Scarf spoke up, “Man, we should be getting paid more for this.”
Some of us should.
“When I do these studies at Harvard, they usually pay like $50.”
“Yeah,” Just Rolled Out of Bed responded, passionate for the first time all day. So being paid the amount you agreed to be paid when you started this study for doing exactly as much work as they said you would isn’t going to cut it? “Or like, normally, they pay you more if you do better on the tasks so you have an incentive, you know?”
Believe me, you don’t want to be paid based on performance.
“That’s what I’m saying. An incentive.” Pink Scarf echoed.
As Oxford Shirt and I continued to do everything, the other two divided their time between not working and complaining that they weren’t being paid enough for the work they weren’t doing.
It seemed like days before we reached the final task: imagining a scenario where we had been in a plane crash and were the only survivors on a desert island. A desert island that would most likely take search crews three days to find. At that point, I could imagine no worse fate.
We were shown a list of items that we recovered from the wreckage and told to rank them in order of importance to our survival. The items included a map, a first aid kit, gasoline, a machete, a shotgun, whisky, matches, a cosmetic mirror, four gallons of water, four white silk scarves, cheese, a compass, and a handful of other things.
“All right! I’m good at this stuff.” Pink Scarf told us as she rubbed her hands together with anticipation.
Surviving on desert islands for three days after a devastating plane crash?
“Well the water is pretty important,” I said.
“And the cheese is the only food listed.”
“What are we going to do with the cheese?” Pink Scarf asked.
I know what we can do with the shotgun.
“Well, that’s the only food we have.” I repeated
“Oh. And don’t forget the whiskey. We can have a good time with that.” She told us.
You’re right, you are good at this survival stuff.
“The mirror doesn’t seem that important,” I said. “We could probably rank that towards the bottom.
“We can use that to signal the rescue crew.” Pink Scarf said.
“We’re going to flag down the rescue plane flying thousands of feet above us with a cosmetic mirror?”I asked, forgetting to keep my sarcastic thoughts internal.
“Yeah, you can make a really powerful reflection with those.” Pink Scarf explained.
“Yeah,” Oxford Shirt nodded.
Wait, what? Did Oxford Shirt just agree with Pink Scarf? Whether I was right or wrong didn’t matter. I just didn’t want to live in a world where Oxford Shirt sided with Pink Scarf over me on anything.
I conceded. Maybe a pocket mirror could indeed flag down a rescue plane. Who was I to say otherwise? I had never been stranded on a desert island. And heaven knows if I was really on an island with these people, I would be spending my time drinking the booze trying to make the pain go away.
We finished the study and were paid our $24 (not without some useless haggling from Pink Scarf), then made for the exits.
It had been an odd experience. Over the course of two hours, I was surprised at just how much anger I felt towards Pink Scarf and Just Rolled Out of Bed. They were just two people, like me, trying to make an extra few bucks. Sure they didn’t carry their weight in the tasks we performed, but our success on the tasks ultimately meant nothing, so why was I so concerned with how we did?
Pink Scarf was friendly and joking in the way that she knew how and if she had been successful in getting a pay raise, it would have helped all of us. As we walked out of the room, she told the three of us about studies they did at Harvard that needed participants and paid better than this one.
I felt like a dick for being so hard on her.
But I still didn’t like her.
-  If you’re like me, at some point you start to ask the question, are they plants as part of the experiment? I mean, no one could be this incompetent. But I had a conversation with both of them afterwards that left me almost positive that they were simply volunteers for a research study, just like me. Meaning that, in other words, yes people can be this incompetent. It’s like that George Carlin line says, “Think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize half of ‘em are stupider than that.” ↩
-  I think there are several other questions that also needed to be asked like, “How did no one in security stop the guy trying to board with a machete?” And “Doesn’t four survivors, four gallons of water and four silk scarves all seem a little convenient? Did someone prepping the plane know that there would be a crash and only four survivors? Shouldn’t we at least investigate him as a potential terrorist? ↩
In some but not all articles, names or identifying characteristics or individual lines of dialogue have been changed to protect identities or because remembering exactly how things happened is hard. But in every case, an effort was made to maintain the integrity of these events that did indeed actually happen.
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