The use (and pretend use) of electric shocks in psychological experiments has a long and disturbing pedigree.
Perhaps the most infamous (pretend) use of electric shocks are Stanley Milgram’s experiments, which are popularly believed to demonstrate that people will obey orders no matter how inhuman they appear to be. However, closer inspection of his results suggests that the one thing he seems to have shown unequivocally is that people don’t follow requests of this nature if they are given as orders (*).
So I suppose that it is unsurprising that a number of different media outlets outside of the dusty academic journals have picked up on the recently published research by Wilson et al. which appears to suggest that people would voluntarily give themselves electric shocks rather than spend a few minutes alone with their thoughts. This seemingly irresistible combination of psychology and electricity has, of course, produced journalistic articles of varying coherence.
Possibly the most evidence-free of these was published in Forbes, whose correspondent appears to attribute the use of smartphones and tablets by “younger and younger children” as threatening the ability of “future generations” to be able to think abstract thoughts. Forbes appear to have ignored the inconvenient truth that although Wilson initially thought that “technology experience” or age might be a factor, he points out that their results doesn’t support this hypothesis.
Instead, I suspect that these findings aren’t necessarily generalisable at all. Wilson and his colleagues recruited volunteers to take part in his experiments. If you’re an ethical psychologist (rather than a data scientist at Facebook) then of course you make sure that your participants genuinely are volunteers and you seek their informed consent. One thing that appears to be consistently true of volunteers for experiments is that they are significantly higher than the general population on measures of “sensation seeking” – a quirk that was reported as far back as 1967 (+).
So if you’re predisposed to being a sensation seeker and are faced with the option of having nothing much to do for a few minutes or playing with something that you know will give you a mildly exciting shock, what would you do?
(*) Reicher, S. & Haslam, S.A. (2011). After shock? Towards a social identity explanation of the Milgram ‘obedience’ studies. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 163-169.
(+) Zuckerman, M., Schultz, D. P. & Hopkins, T. R. (1967). Sensation Seeking and Volunteering for Sensory Deprivation and Hypnosis Experiments. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31(4), 358-363.