Howard and Doris went on a senior cruise. Of the many activities, the one they enjoyed most was a toastmaster’s club that met in the evenings. Everybody would put a topic on a slip of paper, fold it, and drop it into a hat. Then people would be chosen at random to speak. Each would have to take one of the topics from the hat, and speak on that topic for five minutes.
Four days into the cruise, the ocean got choppy, and Doris felt seasick and retired to their cabin, Howard was going to stay with her, but she urged him to go to the toastmaster’s club without her. So, since watching somebody throw up is not the pleasantest thing, he gave her a Dramamine and went.
Wouldn’t you know it, that evening he was chosen to be a speaker. And the topic he pulled from the hat was ‘sex’. Howie held forth in fine form, perhaps the better because his mate was not present.
When he got back to their cabin, the sea had settled down and so had Doris’ stomach.
“Did you enjoy yourself, dear?” she asked.
“It was okay,” said Howie. “Um—I got picked to speak.”
“Really? What topic did you get stuck with?”
Howie thought of the uproarious laughs he got on some of his cruder points, and was struck with belated embarrassment. “Boating,” he said. “I had to speak on boating.”
The next day, some members of the toastmasters approach Doris and Howie at breakfast. They told Doris that Howie had been the best speaker of the night. This pattern repeated itself throughout the day—everybody complimenting him again on how funny and witty Howie’s presentation was.
Doris became more and more puzzled. “I just don’t understand how Howie could have filled five minutes on that subject,” she said to the admiring group. “After all, he’s only done it twice. The first time, he got sick; and the second time, his hat blew off!”
The first experimental subject (unbeknownst to him) to arrive at my door was Darth Vader. On being offered the choice of a package or a big candy bar, he hesitated long enough for two other groups to pack up behind him. Then he picked the package. So did Tinkerbelle, a Space Man, and a small tiger with a painted face. The latter gave me my first statistical problem of the evening: was it a boy or a girl?
I guessed ‘boy’. But so far, EVERYONE had picked the package. What was I to make of this? The alternative was a big bar, a sure thing.
Lesson one: they had a bag full of candy. Regardless of the size, the bar was just more of the same. The package, however, represented a novelty, and was therefore more desirable – at least on this candy-crammed night.
Which is why my toothbrushes were received with great joy this Halloween, as I knew they would be.
But back to my study, which was beginning to show serious flaws besides the fact that gender is not always discernible when a child is in costume.
The next group was not so surprised to see the two baskets. Almost all the girls went for the packages. But half of the boys (I think they were boys) chose the candy bars. This trend intensified throughout the evening. by the time the last few items were gone, my chart was showing boys always choosing the sure thing, and girls always taking the risky package.
What was going on here?
So I threw scientific protocol to the wind and asked the next group. It seemed that the word was out all up and down the street that the big blue house was giving out something unusual. You see, the kids didn’t wait until they got home to open their packages—they tore them open as they walked, and everybody got to see. And then, if they didn’t like what they had, they tried to swap with somebody else.
What was skewing my results were all those girly items—particularly the makeup samples. The boy’s items were perfectly acceptable to a girl, but not so the reverse! And they couldn’t always be traded. So the boys quickly perceived it as a very risky choice – literally choosing between a sure – if overabundant – thing in the candy bar, or the 50-50 likelihood of getting the equivalent of a lump of coal in the stocking: the dreaded mascara sample! While the girls would get something unusual and fun, either way.
I can’t even remember what grade I got on my project, although I do remember it being the case-in-point for the Professor to discuss using controls and double-blind setups. But I did learn to think very hard about the context of a thing before coming to a conclusion on cause and effect.
Last Tuesday’s sugar orgy is often decried as the triumph of the evil candy industry over parental common sense. But consider the other side of the coin: all-saint’s day, the first of November, and the days that follow. I think we should celebrate ‘all-satiation day’ – the beginning of a week’s worth of learning opportunity which is a blessed part of childhood in our culture.
I speak of the perils of too much of a good thing.
When the dear little trick-or-treaters came to my door this past Tuesday, I gave out toothbrushes. Now some people, on hearing this plan, thought that the children would feel tricked. I knew better, thanks to a class I took back in the stone ages of Experimental Psychology.
We were studying statistical ranges in groups of people (doesn’t that sound boring? It was.) and every student was supposed to design some study or survey involving 30+ individuals and then crunch the numbers to wring some sort of meaning — and hopefully a good grade– out of them.
Most students opted to design a questionnaire to be given to some other class. This was too dull for my taste, but where would I find a statistically sufficient number of individuals for my term project?
Then the Great Pumpkin lit a candle in my gourd. Was it not the Fall quarter? I bethought myself of all the little experimental subjects who would be knocking at my door on the 31st of October. All I had to do was think of some experiment that would involve no parental ire.
I decided to measure risk-taking between males and females. To prepare for my experiment, the month before I haunted dime stores and thrift stores, snapping up all kinds of small trinkets and toys like pencil sharpeners, bubble-blowers, rubber snakes, plastic pearls, jacks, koosh balls, and the like. Plus my friend, who sold Avon, gave me a large supply of makeup, lipstick and mascara samples. I figured I had the items evenly split between male and female interests. Once I had a hundred, I wrapped each one in enough newspaper to disguise its shape and tied the package with twine.
Then I got a hundred candy bars – not the mini-bars that are usually given out on Halloween, but the full-size ones. The candy bars went in one basket, and the paper-wrapped objects in another. The kids would have to choose between the sure thing—a full-sized candy bar—and the risky anonymous newspaper package.
I readied my chart, listing boys on one column and girls on the other, and waited for the fateful night.