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Page last updated at 10:23 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

When is reality not real?

Two-way mirror

The problem with watching how people behave in "real" life is that once you tell them they're being watched they stop being real, says Laurie Taylor in his weekly column for the Magazine.

"What I really want," I told the vice chancellor, "is a laboratory of human behaviour. I want to be able to watch people as they engage in normal social interaction. I want to be able to make a sophisticated record of every aspect of that interaction. And I want to be invisible to my subjects. To see and not be seen."

"A bit like God, really," said the vice-chancellor.

Laurie Taylor
Hear Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed on Radio 4 at 1600 on Wednesdays or 0030 on Mondays

It was back in the late 60s when I first laid out that shopping list, a time when new universities were being sufficiently funded to allow even junior lecturers like myself to make quite outrageous demands for special research facilities.

I got everything I wanted: a social psychology laboratory which was described by one leading researcher as "Europe's most sophisticated facility for the observation and measurement of group behaviour."

Let me take you on a brief tour. As you enter from the departmental corridor you find yourself in what looks like a small theatre. But the neat rows of tip-up seats face not a stage or a screen but a one-way mirror which stretches cinemascopically across the entire width of the room.

Sheltered immediately below the mirror are a dozen small-work stations, each one fitted with sophisticated recording devices which allow the specialised observers to make a cumulative record of every piece of interaction occurring on the other side of the mirror.

Complete control

And then, as the watching students settle in their seats, and the specialist observers, click "Start" on their recording panels, the action begins.

Reality is a tricky phenomenon... [students] would go out of their way to confirm what they thought was the experimenter's hypothesis

Through the mirror we see a group of five students sitting together at a table. They are trying to resolve a problem "Could we do it this way?" says one student. "I can't see how that would help," says another.

Through the mirror in the observation room, the recorders are busily coding each of these remarks. "Could we do it this way?" counts as an "instrumental suggestion" and that means a click on the number six button on the recording pad. "I can't see how that would help" is rated as a "negative emotional response" and rates an eight.

And while all this goes on I would be standing at the back of the observation room feeling that I had at last managed to capture experimentally a small piece of reality. Unlike other social scientists, who studied such nebulous topics as social mobility and ethnic relations, I was in complete control of my subject matter.

There were obviously some slightly unnatural aspects involved in my study - after all people don't typically sit down to tackle problems at a table in a large empty room bounded on one side by a huge mirror - but once the subjects got started on the problem, there could surely be no doubting the reality of the ways they interacted.

Conforming to type

But reality is a tricky phenomenon. Some years later I came across a disturbing study which showed that the ways in which students behaved in social psychology laboratories was entirely different from the behaviour they'd exhibit in other settings. For a start, they would go out of their way to confirm what they thought was the experimenter's hypothesis.

Big Brother
Is this how normal people would behave if unwatched by TV cameras?

They'd agree and disagree in laboratory discussion groups because they'd decided in advance that this was what people on the other side of the one-way mirror wanted to see and hear. The conclusion was stark. What I'd been studying all these years was not reality at all. It was a very specialised form of reality - laboratory reality.

Outside the laboratory, the work of recording reality has become the specialised preserve of film and television documentary makers. Each of them, from Robert Flaherty in the 1930s to the contemporary producers of Big Brother, have used and misused the word "reality" to add status to their cultural products. No wonder that Brian Winston chose Claiming the Real as a title for his illuminating history of the documentary.

A couple of months ago I ran into a student who'd taken part in my interaction studies. He wondered how they'd worked out. Had I proved what I'd wanted to prove?

"Oh yes," I told him, "everything came out more or less as I predicted".

"That's great," he said. "None of us wanted to let you down." I nodded my thanks and said goodbye: it somehow didn't seem appropriate to point out that his eagerness to bring my study to a successful conclusion had undermined my belief in laboratory findings forever.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Fascinating subject. But surely Mr Taylor already knew that the "act" of watching an event will change it if the participants are aware they may be watched? I found one comment really significant - "I was in complete control of my subject matter". If you control something it can never happen naturally. The experiment was doomed from the inception. The alternative - hidden cameras in public/communal areas would be very hard to get permission for - so I suspect that investigation into the detail or personal interactions will never be easy to do.
Sandy, Derby, UK

My boyfriend did a psychology module at university, and the best experiments were the ones in which people didn't realise it was part of the experiment - they would ask the subjects to wait under certain conditions "while they set up the experiment", and they would have no idea that they were being observed the whole time.
Jane, Manchester, UK

This is a nice story about reality. And I'd like to add that reality comes out when somebody don't have any motives. Motives, when present either in conscious or subconscious mind deflects people from their reality and accordingly from their acts. Hence a person would act the same in front of thousands of people or alone, if he is free from all worldly motives or desires. For instance: some "SADHUS" in my part of the world. Thanks.
Dr Pukar Thapa, Kathmandu, Nepal

It's not just in human interaction. It's a law of quantum physics (I believe) that it is impossible to observe any particle without changing its state.
Mark Hewitt, Chester-le-Street

It was clear from the start that reality TV had nothing to do with reality. Unless, that is, you spend your whole life with people with severe personality problems. Reality TV is more like the modern equivalent of the 18th Century pastime of going to the lunatic asylum to be appalled and amused in turn by the inmates.
David, Norwich

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