Monday, February 11, 2013

Behind the Eiffel Tower


In a previous post I alluded to the fact that I had produced an amusing title a few years ago for an article that was published in Psychological Science (it was intended as a parody on the article titles in that journal). I also mentioned that that article won the Ig Nobel Prize for psychology last year. This prize is awarded for “research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think.”

I thought it might be interesting to describe the creative process behind this paper. I’ll start by saying that I was not a creative force behind the paper, so I’m describing it as a participant observer.

My favorite Beatles song is A Day in the Life. One of the things I like about this song is the sudden switch from the main theme to the middle part (Woke up, fell out of bed…). When I first heard the song, I was amazed. How on Earth did John Lennon and Paul McCartney come up with the idea of switching in the middle of the song to a totally different piece and then back? I had started to write songs myself, one chord at a time. It seemed beyond amazing to invent the transition the Beatles came up with if you used this technique.

I imagined John and Paul sitting together with guitars (just like my friends and me), composing. John had the first part, played it to Paul, who then said Hang on, I’ve got an idea and then started playing the first chord of the next part. They worked on it a bit and then John said Alright, and what if we then we go back to my piece? And Paul said Yeah that’s great, man!

Reality turned out to be a bit different as I discovered when I started reading about the Beatles. In fact, John already had the whole beginning and end but felt something was missing. Paul had been working on something separately that didn’t have a clear beginning or end. And so they decided to combine the two ideas—to great effect.

How is this relevant to the topic of this blog? Over from the sublime to the mundane.

My lab group meets on Friday mornings in a coffee shop. As a side note, in the Netherlands a place like this is tautologically called a coffee café, the term coffee shop having been claimed by establishments where drinking coffee is not high (pun intended) on the agenda.

At any rate, we meet at a coffee shop to discuss the projects that the various lab members are engaged in. We also always discuss a target article of potential interest. Few years ago, we were inspired by the work of Rick Dale and colleagues, who had marshaled wii technology to study cognition and action. The advantage of this technology is that it (1) has high temporal resolution (meaning you can study fast processes) and (2) is pretty damn cheap.

Some master students in our group were building a wii lab together with our lab technicians. At one of the lab meetings the students reported that they had discovered that you could make people believe they were standing straight up when they were actually tilted. A dot representing their center of pressure could be displaced such that when subjects moved it to the center of a crosshairs, their weight was actually slightly shifted to one side. We though this was very cool but decided to put it on the backburner because we couldn’t think of anything to do with it other than making people fall off the balance board, which—though it had a certain appeal—didn’t seem very useful.

Some weeks later, we discussed an article on the so-called SNARC effect (spatial-numerical association of response codes) that showed that people responded faster to smaller numbers presented on the left and larger numbers presented on the right than vice versa (unfortunately I don’t recall which article it was). The topic of this article was outside of our normal focus, which is on language processing, but such excursions often prove informative.

The basic idea is that we mentally represent numbers on a line with smaller numbers on the left and larger numbers on the right. There are many experiments on this topic. In a parity-judgment task (is the number odd or even?) subjects respond faster to a small number when it is presented on the left of a (larger) target number than when it is presented on the right of it and vice versa for larger numbers.

A key conclusion from our discussion of the target article was that, yeah sure, you can make people think of smaller numbers when the number is presented on the left but the subjects are aware that the number is presented on the left. So maybe the whole process is mediated via lexical associations. The location of the target number activates left, which activates small numbers, simply put. A stronger test of the idea would be one that could show this effect without people being aware of left or right. Then serendipity struck.

One of our group members, Anita Eerland (third from the right), remembered the discussion about the wii balance board from a few weeks earlier and said: What if we put people on the balance board while they make estimates of things like the height of the Eiffel Tower? We can then manipulate left or right without them knowing it.

It was outside our normal research domain but it seemed like an interesting question. As we developed the paradigm, it appeared to us that the research had become more than merely an attempt to investigate a potential confound from research on the mental number line. It became a study about estimation.

So by combining two unrelated and not very outlandish ideas, one emanating from a critical discussion of a paper and the other from fiddling around in the lab, there now was an amalgam that unexpectedly led to an Ig Nobel Prize.

I’m not saying this is on a par with writing A Day in the Life, obviously. But sometimes you get very unusual-looking ideas by combining relatively mundane ones.

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