A while back I wrote a post about classical conditioning, and how I fell victim of its power to associate unrelated things in my mind. I also pondered on some questions for further thought: could conditioning be used to condition a positive emotion in response to a neutral stimulus in people, and would the fact that you know you’re being conditioned have any effect on the process?
Well, there’s no more sure-fire way to test a hypothesis than to conduct your own rigorous investigation. And so I decided that the only rational way to explore the idea of positive conditioning was to try and condition my wife Liz to like death metal.
This experiment lasted several weeks and produced some interesting results, which I will share with you now in the form of a full academic report. Buckle up, we’re doing science, bitches.
Background- Classical Conditioning
Classical conditioning, or learning by association, has its roots in behavioural psychology and the work of Ivan Pavlov in particular. His work demonstrated that if a response-provoking stimulus is consistently presented with a neutral stimulus then the subject will learn to associate the two and will react to the neutral stimulus in the same way as the response-provoking or unconditioned stimulus. Put simply: if you ring a bell just before giving a dog some food, the dog will learn that the bell means food is coming, so will salivate at the sound of the bell.
This effect has been widely demonstrated using lower forms of animal life including dogs, rats and pigeons, so there is no reason not to think that it would also work on wives.
One important fact separates wives from dogs: dogs will generally remain in the kitchen if told to stay. Am I right, lads?
…Not sure how many more of those I am going to get away with. Another key difference is that a wife has the capacity to know that she is being experimented on. A dog hearing a bell and then being given food would think thoughts along the lines of “Oooh! A bell! Ooooh food!”, while a wife may be prone to such thoughts as “Stop ringing that bell, idiot”, or “I am not eating that- that’s dog food” or even “Paul, stop being an idiot and stack the dishwasher.” Therefore the current experiment aims to establish whether the conditioning process is altered by the subject having the entire process being explained to them beforehand.
Since conditioning is not a conscious process and can be observed even in primitive species it seems likely that it can be observed even under such conditions. Given this, and the fact that classical conditioning is one of the most robust and powerful effects in all of psychology I predict that it will be observed even if the subject is made aware of the aims and procedure of the experiment.
Participants: a matched, stratified sample of persons married to me (N=1) were selected for the experimental condition. The primary subject was Elizabeth Ewbank, 28, debt counsellor, photographer, cooker of yummy food and lovely wifey.
Selecting the Stimuli
One hurdle in designing the experimental framework was coming up with a procedure which the subject would be willing to go through regularly despite knowing that it was part of a stupid experiment to be published on a blog. A highly positive unconditioned stimulus was therefore selected to entice the subject into compliance: a foot massage. Obtaining the subject’s permission to use her in the experiment was therefore a simple case of explaining to her that it would basically mean receiving foot massages once per night for a week.
For the conditioned stimulus I decided that the only rational choice was a heavy metal song. I selected the song Papyrus Containing the Spell to Summon the Breath of Life Enshrined in the Collected Scrolls of Sheryl Crow by Oslo-based Grindcore act Beaten to Death. I selected this song for a number of reasons, outlined below:
- It has a really long name that’s kinda funny
- It is less than two minutes long, meaning that it could be played in its entirety multiple times during a single session.
For the procedure to work it was imperative that the conditioned stimulus did not invoke any strong emotional response in the subject. This was tested during a preliminary experiment in which the song was played for the subject, who was then asked to rate the song on a Likert scale of 1 to 10.
The subject’s first question upon hearing the song was enquiring as to whether it was satanic in nature. Once the wholly non-demonic nature of the song was established the subject made several comments about the song, including that she found it “A little bit amusing. Like a really really angry Donald Duck.” She did however confirm that she was “impartial towards it… no strong feelings. It’s a piece of music.” before rating it as a 5 out of 10 on the scale. The song was therefore deemed appropriate for use as the conditioned stimulus.
Procedure: once per evening the subject would be asked to sit upright in bed at a sort of diagonal angle because the bed isn’t long enough for me to sit at the other end if she is fully outstretched. She would then be asked to rate her relaxation level on a Likert scale of 1 to 10. She would then receive a foot massage, during which time the conditioned stimulus would be played to her on my laptop. The massage would last approximately five minutes, or three full runs of the song.
Upon the conclusion of the third run of the song the massage ceased and the subject was again asked to rate her level of relaxation on the scale. After five exposures to the song with a massage, an additional five exposures to the song would be performed without a subsequent foot massage, during which relaxation was measured before, during and after the song, to see if the relaxation effect was conditioned to be felt in response to the song alone.
During the first day it was discovered that I had no idea how to set a song to repeat on Spotify, so I had to briefly interrupt the massage to start the song again. This issue was rectified in time for day 2. Other than that no issues arose during the experimental procedure.
Condition 1- relaxation levels with the conditioned and unconditioned stimulus. A 2x3x3 Factorial ANOVA design with mixed coefficient was used to analyse the levels of relaxation before and after the massage. Which is to say, I added them up and took an average. Figure 1 shows the results.
Figure 1. Relaxation level before and after foot massage
As figure 1 shows, there was a 58% increase in relaxation after the foot massage was completed whilst the song was playing. This effect was significant to .05% variance, but the finding cannot be labelled as significant per se given that this entire study is a load of crap and so it would be a bit of a stretch to call any finding herein “significant” in any way.
Condition 2- relaxation levels when only exposed to the conditioned stimulus. The most important result is whether this increase in relaxation was evident when exposed only to the conditioned stimulus- the grindcore song. Figure 2 shows the relaxation levels reported before, during and after the song.
A very slight increase in relaxation levels was observed after playing the song. This increase amounted to less than 1 point on the scale and did not reach statistical significance, or any other kind of significance for that matter. Breaking down these results further, this overall increase can mostly be attributed to the first day of testing using only the conditioned stimulus. In this session the subject’s relaxation levels rose from 5 to 7 after hearing the song, suggesting that the conditioning had, in fact, worked. The subject’s comments seemed to confirm this as she stated: “Legs feel a bit more tingly. Just feel generally a bit more relaxed, musculatorily.” Whilst musculatorily is of course not a word, the point seems to be that she did feel somewhat more relaxed. However, this effect was not replicated on subsequent nights.
The overall conclusion as to the relative success of the study can be seen in figure 3.
As figure 3 shows, the experiment did not work. There are a number of possible considerations as to why this was.
Liz ruined everything. It is entirely possible that Liz ruined everything for everyone by messing with the data, providing responses just to screw with me, being too much of a div to accurately assess her own emotional state, or by simply having a brain that does not respond to things in the normal way.
Experimental flaws. In attempting to evaluate the potential lack of findings in this experiment one must not neglect the fact that the experiment was total crap. Experimental controls were nonexistent, trials were conducted on an as-and-when-I-could-be-arsed basis and no attempt was made to standardise many of the key variables in the experiment. The fact that there was indeed any observable effect should be considered remarkable in the face of such shocking disregard for good scientific practice.
Demand characteristics. One possible effect that may have arisen from this study relates to the fact that the subject knew the aims and procedure of the study beforehand. This may have led to a case of demand characteristics or trying to guess what effect the experimenter was hoping to produce. This could be observed in some of the comments made by the subject when asked for her relaxation levels. After hearing the song the subject would make comments such as “…maybe a five and a half?” or “I guess I’m a tiny bit more relaxed…” indicating a desire to feel more relaxed, even if in actual fact she did not. The cognitive process involved in trying to make herself feel relaxed (and thus validate the experiment) may have inadvertently reduced the levels of relaxation experienced.
Not Enough Exposure to Conditioned Stimulus. The most probably reason for the lack of an effect is that I simply did not make Liz listen to enough grindcore. Thus, I now suggest a follow up study where the entire ALBUM is played to Liz at maximum volume using in-ear headphones, while she is blindfolded and strapped to the bed to minimize distraction. Also the foot massage may have been insufficiently stimulating to produce a response. As a substitute for this… I dunno, I’ll probably just hit Liz with a cane or something for twenty minutes each night.
Sound good, Liz? Hey, get back here!