Ray Butterworth — Psych tests

Normal versus Correct

Near the end of high-school I was visiting the University of Guelph and was stopped by a student and asked to take part in a psychology experiment. They needed just one more volunteer before they could start the session, and I was it.

About 20 of us were seated in a small auditorium, at the front of which was a strange looking machine with a long thin arm on it. The demonstrator pressed a button on it, then the device made a whirring sound and the arm moved. He told us that the room was going to be made totally dark during which time we would be asked to look at the small light on the end of the arm and to estimate how far it moved.

The lights went out and everything was black except for the faint glow on the device, which soon started making the whirring sound. The light didn't appear to move, but just after the sound stopped I did see it move. One by one we reported how far we thought the light had moved, and fortunately I was last so had time to think about it. I had seen movement, but not when I should have, and had no idea how far it had moved. Other people reported things like six inches or two feet, so I simply made up a number that sounded like everyone else's and reported that.

The test was repeated several more times, and for these I concentrated on the light and did see movement during the whirring. I couldn't be sure how far it moved with much accuracy, but I knew it didn't move more than a certain amount, so I reported that. With each test I found that what I thought was the maximum possible movement became smaller and smaller, until I barely saw it move at all. That didn't seem unreasonable, perhaps they were reducing the movement each time, trying to find the smallest movement people could detect.

After the test I was taken aside and asked to complete a questionaire. The interviewer revealed to me that I was actually the only volunteer, the others being students in his class. He seemed to expect some reaction to this, but it didn't seem like a big deal to me He then revealed that the light itself had never actually moved. The apparent movement was simply a phenomenon that the brain and eye cause when there is no point of reference for non-movement. Again, he seemed to expect some reaction to this, but again it didn't seem like a big deal to me.

He said that this was the last session of the day (it really was), and wanted to talk a bit more about it with me. Some of the previous volunteers had reacted very badly to one or both of the two revelations, some crying, some getting angry. I was the only one that had shown no visible reaction.

I suspect that an experiment like this would no longer be ethically allowed today, but as for myself, I'm glad I had the opportunity to take part in it.

He also said that my measurements were very unlike everyone else's. People's first answers were all over the place, but with each iteration each person's answers approached the norm of the answers given by the rest of the group. Mine hadn't done anything like that; my first answer had been near the norm and my following answers had approached zero (i.e. reality).

Thinking about it afterward, I realized that he must have thought that I was extremely unparanoid to not have been bothered by the deception. Being the only person in the room not in on the joke really didn't bother me at all, but I think that is because I am so paranoid.

Similarly, only my first number was made up (and that only because I was slow in perceiving the phenomenon). All my other responses were as truthful as I could make them, as I barely paid any attention to what others were reporting.

I now see that this very much reflects my attitude to most things in life. I have always looked for and moved toward the truth, not the norm.

Resistance to Persuasion

During my first university co-op work term, I shared a room with a fellow student for four months in Toronto. While there, he became involved with the Church of Scientology. One of his tasks was to bring in other people to take their personality test, so I went along with it.

I would guess that the main purpose of that test was to provide them with a good estimate of my personality so that they could use that to their advantage when trying to recruit me. The after-test interview consisted mostly of trying to get me to buy their Dianetics book. No matter what they said about the book, no matter how much I agreed that it was interesting, they could not sell it to me. I told them I would read it; I told them I would buy a copy; but I also told them not now and not here. I agreed with all their arguments and persuasions about it, but no matter what, I still wouldn't buy the book from them during the interview.

A few days later, may roommate told me that the interviewer had talked to him about me. He said I was the most resistive (I think that was the word) person they had ever encountered.

(I did buy the book soon after that, but not directly from them. I read it all too, but of course never did join the organization.)

Pop-psych

During and after university I became interested in pop-psychology (and religion), but only as something to study, not as something to believe. Whether it was Psycho-Cybernetics, Dianetics, or whatever, I found insight and understanding about how our minds work, but certainly never saw any of them as the one true answer. The main thing I got out of this hobby was finding examples of how different I was from normal people (and that particular normal is among those people that use self-help pop-psych books).

What I found most revealing was the multiple-choice tests. The one I remember in particular was the question: Would you rather be right and have everyone consider you wrong, or be wrong and have everyone consider you right?. This was a somewhat shocking question. To me that question was simply: Would you rather be right or wrong?; the rest of it was just noise. The choice of preferring to be wrong but considered right had never occurred to me before. But the fact that this was given as a possible answer meant that there were actually people in this world that would choose it. Until that point in my life I had never considered such a possibility.

Social

More recently, my wife watched the television series Parenthood, and I occasionally saw bits and pieces of it. I really couldn't handle the program though. Nothing ever really happened; the plot seemed to consist of not much more than showing the characters' long drawn-out emotional overreactions to mostly minor events.

At one point I commented that everyone on the program appeared to be crazy, and that I couldn't stand living or working with people like that. There seemed to be only one rational or even likeable character, played by Ray Romano, and I wondered whether this was really a comedy like Green Acres, where Eddie Albert was the only sane character in the program. I was then informed that in fact everyone else was normal, and he was the one with mental problems (Asperger syndrome). So it goes.

True Colors

The HR people where I worked gave us a True Colors test.

It was the most useful personality test I'd encountered. It didn't attempt to classify people by their obvious behaviours (e.g. introverted/extroverted), but by their motives, the way they thought of harmony in the ideal world. Knowing what motiviates someone is far more useful than knowing how they are likely to behave.

People are classified by the situations in which they feel most comfortable:

The order listed above is arbitrary; there are no good or bad feelings, no right or wrong answers. Everyone experiences all four feelings simultaneously, but typically some feelings are stronger than the others. The order (24 possibilities) in which one feels these categories determines one's personality spectrum, which can be further refined by the relative strengths of the categories.

A perfectly balanced person would experience all four feelings equally, while some people are very strong in only one category and weak in the others. Most people however are somewhere between these extremes.

My liking of this test is perhaps biased by my results: I am an extremely pathological case. In all twenty questions, my first choice was always the one that matched the first category listed above. My second choice was always the second, and my third the third. All entirely without exception and without any premeditation or manipulation on my part.

I.e. in any situation I first need to understand why things are the way they are, then how they are, then how they can affect me, and finally how they relate to everyone else. I think this order of priorities goes a long way to explaining each of the other sections above.

(For more details see my much longer article about True Colors.)