Monday, November 09, 2015

Why I believe Ben Carson

First: I hope that anyone reading these words will first read the preceding three stories about the California "missile mystery."

Second: Later today, I intend to post an unusual piece about Flight 9268, so y'all come back soon, y'hear?

Third: This. And this.

I think Carson is telling the truth about this one. Why? Because something similar happened to me when I took Psych 101, a long, long time ago. (How long? Don't ask. When I was born, men still wore tri-corner hats.)

Circumstances forced me to miss the final, and I had reconciled myself to the not-unpleasant prospect of taking the class again. Fortunately, a number of other students were in the same boat, and we were allowed to take a make-up final.

We were left completely on our own in a room not normally used as a classroom. No professor. No assistants. Nobody checked out bags: We were allowed to bring in our textbooks.

Now, I had studied for this test. The subject matter was interesting. I probably would have fared well even if I had done everything on the straight-and-narrow.

But...well, you know how it is when the right answer is almost within reach of your memory? "On the tip of your tongue," as it were? Almost remembering something is far worse than complete ignorance. One of the early questions was of this nature, and it was absolutely infuriating. I had to know, whatever the consequences.

So I checked that answer in the textbook. Other students around that table saw me sneak a peek, and they smiled conspiratorially. It occurred to me that there were probably ringers in that room, reporting on miscreants. Everything that happened in this room was a test of our basic honesty.

But: In for a penny, in for a pound.

Very soon, I was ostentatiously double-checking every answer, even the easiest ones about which there was no doubt. If this "make-up exam" was itself a psychological test, why not confirm the most cynical instincts of the test's designer? If I had sported a mustache in those days, I would have twirled it like the villain in an old stage melodrama.

At the end of this exercise, I fully expected the clamp of an official hand on the shoulder, telling me that my days at that college were over. Having chosen the path of evil, I now had no choice but to paint my face white, move to Gotham City and try to kill Batman.

Nope. Got an A. Not just on the test: I got an A in the class.

That grade bewildered me. Even if I had gotten an honest A on the final, I deserved a solid B in the class. (The final exam constituted only about thirty percent of the grade.) Perhaps those who had unwittingly participated in that "honesty test" received an A regardless of actual achievement.

(Cheating on a test is very naughty, but so is experimentation on the unwitting. So it all evens out. That's my argument and I'm sticking to it.)

At any rate, Ben Carson's tale has the ring of reality for me. This tale. Not that other crap.

I'd like to take that test again, this time doing everything as though Jiminy Cricket were on my shoulder. Just to prove I can. Sigmund Freud: He was the guy with the beard, right?
I was one class short of having a minor in psych and one of my professors told a tale wherein the students in a Behavior Mod class conspired to "shape" the professor. The door was on the right and the windows on the left in this classroom. The students all agreed to act disinterested if the professor was near the door but to act interested if he was near the windows. By the end of the semester, the professor was practically standing in the windows. I put all these psych stories in the same classification as the giant catfish found at the dam in every large reservoir in the world; i.e. "True but..."
Bob Harrison describes a standard demo widely used to illustrate the effects of reward on behavior. It is well known in psychology.

I doubt the exam situation was any kind of experiment. Unfortunately, some professors don't take their grading responsibilities very seriously. It may be something as simple as that the professor left his gradebook at school but needed to turn in grades by a certain deadline, so he made up the grades off the top of his head. Students rarely complain when they get a higher grade than expected, so giving an A when you deserved a B will cause less problems than giving a B to someone who may have deserved an A. For all you know, the whole class might have been given A's. The lack of a proctor suggests a lack of interest in giving fair grades, or some problem in the professor's personal life, not any kind of experiment.
I am not convinced by Carson's story about the test, personally. I don't see how the 'honesty' part is supported in his story (since there is no mention that the others were cheating on the test, just that they all left without finishing it). If anything, it seems maybe Carson was the only one who didn't realize it was a hoax, and still doesn't get the fact that he 'won' what amounted to a booby prize by being the only one who still bought the set up at the end.

However, if it is true, it's an interesting case study of how something true can look so fishy as to create doubt in neutral parties. I do think that sometimes happens, and even plentiful rational objections to some story may end up wrong in the end. And that's always worth keeping in mind.

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