Psycho Babble

Tyler Is Setting Up a Tent

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By Jessica Love


 

It’s a Tuesday morning, raining, and my galoshes do little to keep my feet dry. Today, though, is a Stimuli Day, so my walk to work—if squishy—is blithe. Stimuli Days don’t keep me in graduate school per se, but they help. As a student of psycholinguistics, I spend my days designing and conducting studies. The good ones get me a little closer to understanding how people learn and use language. The bad ones lead me, briefly, to reconsider dreams of a research career. Every day needs stimuli.

I arrive at the psych department a half hour later, dry my socks on a lab mate’s chair—not a morning person, he’ll never know—and get to work. This latest experiment requires as stimuli 16-line stories, 24 of them, each involving three characters. Two of these characters must be mentioned the same number of times and possess names free of gender ambiguity. No Pats and no Jessies.

I’m interested in how the information we know about a person becomes “reinstated” or once again accessible in memory. When your mother tells you she spoke with Phil on the phone today, what do you access when you hear Phil? Do you think red-haired or smarmy or Memphis-native or electrician? You know all of these things about Phil, but probably, in the context of your mother, who lives alone in a large, dilapidated house, you’ll think electrician. Particularly if you know she’s been having trouble with her fuse-box. But to test this, I first need to come up with a sufficient number of scenarios that introduce a protagonist with a dilemma (a finicky fuse-box), a second character with a relevant occupation (an electrician), and a third character (a choreographer, maybe) to serve as a control, to distract attention away from the second character. I’m interested in measuring response times to electrician, flashed mid-story in a task where participants must respond “Yes” if they’ve recently read the word and “No” otherwise. If electrician comes to mind upon encountering Phil, responses to electrician should be faster after reading Phil than after reading Sandra. But, for the response times to be interpretable, all the stories need to be as similar as possible. For each story, all three characters’ introductions and descriptions and departures need to appear in the same places.

It’s often said by psycholinguists—especially those whose research interests, like mine, touch on discourse-level questions like how people keep track of what’s happening as one sentence eases into the next—that writing stimuli is the hardest part of what we do. (Indeed, psycholinguists often recycle one another’s stimuli to avoid writing their own.) Programming the experiment, running participants, analyzing data: all of the rest is as a matter of course. Without stimuli, there is no experiment.

For me, crafting stimuli is a guilty pleasure. Each story must begin the same way. Susan is practicing basketball. Johnny is preparing for a party. Katherine is riding a horse. Tyler is staking a flysheet. Different, but the same. It’s a bit like having permission to write bad poetry: all of the constraints of a sonnet, but none of the beauty or the horror or the resonance. Each stimulus story is a bland rondeau that cannot announce itself as such, as it must be read, in one version or another, twenty-four times. As psycholinguists, we’re interested in how the mind understands language in general, not language in particular. So what to do, given language only comes in particulars? I fiddle with #16, which runs long, and #7, which rings odd: What would undergraduate participants know about staking a flysheet?

Tyler is setting up a tent. On the windowpane, raindrops begin their meandering journeys down. I type, He works as quickly as possible because soon it will rain. I am in control. I pull my socks back on an instant before my lab mate walks through the door. I’ve discovered what unsurprising thing Tyler must do next.

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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