3 Minute ThesisNovember 25, 2011
So I saw this tweet an hour ago:
And I had a look. Explain your PhD thesis, and why it’s important, in 3 minutes. After I finished making slightly panicked noises at the thought of condensing thousands of words and hours of work into 180 seconds, I had a quick go at it. 180 seconds is ~300-400 words if you speak quickly enough and eschew dramatic pauses for effect.
As I wrote, I realized that I’ve been trying to condense my thesis into a couple of minutes since I started – when asked by relatives, friends of family, and slightly interested friends who really don’t want the whole spiel. So I started trying a bit harder to actually make it work. It wouldn’t hurt to have a 400 word synopsis that communicates the basic ideas.
So here’s what I’ve got after about an hour:
Our modern culture doesn’t explicitly endorse racist or sexist attitudes. And yet, even people who claim vehemently not to be prejudiced, who truly believe they are not prejudiced, act in prejudiced ways. “Implicit Tests” are designed to tap into attitudes that you might not be willing to disclose, or that you aren’t aware you have.
I’m tackling implicit testing from a behavioural perspective. A behaviourist doesn’t think of “attitudes” in the same way as most psychologists – we don’t think of attitudes as something that cause your behaviour, but rather that an “attitude” is a way of describing a particular history of interacting with a culture, and the pattern of behaviour that that history produces. The behavioural field is beginning to understand the processes involved in verbal behaviour – in particular, a behaviour called “derived relational responding” which is unique to verbally able humans.
Derived relational responding is a behaviour we all learn as we’re being taught language. Even when humans learn a few things through direct reinforcement, the implied relationships between stimuli, between words and ideas, also become part of our behavioural repertoire. The number of relations that can emerge is truly massive – the number of emergent relations is the square of number of directly taught relations. When you consider how many ideas you absorb from the culture, you get a staggering number of emergent relations.
This is where my research comes in – we think that this process of deriving relations is responsible for these prejudiced behaviours from people who don’t believe they’re prejudiced. They’ve never directly been taught to act that way, but this behavioural process means that these implied, derived relations affect how people act, even if they’re not aware of why they’re doing it.
I’m developing a testing methodology that uses knowledge of these processes to subtly, but sensitively test for this kind of relation in a person’s learning history. It’s called the Functional Acquisition Speed Test – it looks at how easily you learn new relations when we put them in opposition to the suspected relation we’re testing for – the slower you learn, the stronger that past relation is. The FAST is research tools that will help us understand the processes that create attitudes indirectly, as well as test for the existence of these attitudes in people who don’t want to admit they have them – for example, in prisoners who want to “fake good.”