A lecturer introduces a group of teenage schoolchildren to the study of psychology be re-enacting an infamous 1970s social experiment; by Anne Goodwin.
TEACHER: Let's get going then. Green - grass, shoe, box, hat. Answer, please.
TEACHER: Correct. Next one: Fish - hand, pie, walk, slow. Answer, please.
Stella shepherds her troupe into the classroom and closes the door. She struts to the front and pretends to check the papers on her clipboard while she watches how the sixth formers select their seats. As expected, they mostly congregate towards the back of the room. Only two of the group, a slouching red-haired boy with a complexion more acne than skin and a poised young woman with ironed-straight hair and perfect makeup, brave the front row. Stella marvels at the varying manifestations of late adolescence: he with all the social graces of a thirteen-year-old, while she could quite easily pass for twenty-five. She sighs as the boy struggles to manoeuvre the clip-on desk into place. The more he tries the more complicated he seems to find it. It reminds her of a scene from one of those excruciating Laurel and Hardy films that her grandmother used to find so amusing.
"For God's sake can somebody help him before he wrecks the furniture," she says.
The boy sits, as helpless as a baby in a highchair, while the sophisticated girl flicks back her hair and leans across to twist his table into position.
"Right, let's get on. My name is Stella Sanderson and I'm a PhD student here in the psychology department. This is the part of the open day where you get to do a real experiment. In our group we're going to be researching paired-associate learning. Now, I need two volunteers..."
A girl in a back-to-front baseball cap raises her hand.
"It says here on the programme we're supposed to do a personality test."
Stella shrugs. "If you want to use your time here filling in a form that you could just as easily download at home from the Internet, then that's up to you. You're quite welcome to go and join one of the other groups." She pauses, while the whole group stares at the baseball-cap girl squirming in her seat. "Or you can stay here and learn some real psychology."
"Some of us have already done learning theory at A-level," whines a podgy girl from the back row.
"Fine," says Stella. "If you already know everything about how human beings function, I can't see why you're bothering to apply for a degree. In fact, I'm surprised you haven't gone straight for the job of head of department."
Several of the students snigger, and the podgy girl bites her lip.
Stella glances around the room, smiling from one uncertain face to the next. "Hey, relax! The very first thing you need to succeed in psychology is an inquiring mind. Question everything. You're right to be sceptical." She swings her left arm round and theatrically examines her watch. "Except that we've only got an hour so if we are going to do the experiment we'd better move on."
TEACHER: Wrong. The answer is slow. Fifteen volts. Next one. Nice - day, bull, shout, new. Answer, please.
"As those of you who have had the privilege of studying A-level will already know," says Stella, with a nod towards the podgy girl at the back, "psychologists have developed several theories to explain how people learn. One theory is that people learn things correctly by being punished for making a mistake..."
The sophisticated girl on the front row shakes her head. "But that theory's been debunked years ago."
Stella frowns. "Has it?"
"Yes," the girl insists. "Everybody knows that positive reinforcement is far more effective."
"Do they, indeed?" Stella arches her eyebrows. "What's your name?"
"Well, Abigail. Tell me, if you can, how many parents believe that smacking a child will help them to learn right from wrong."
"That's different," says Abigail.
"Is it?" Stella feels the tension in the room. She notices the geeky boy with the face full of acne trying to shrink into his seat. "Why don't we do the experiment and find out?"
Abigail shrugs. "Whatever!"
"So I need a volunteer to be the teacher and another to be the learner." She turns round and pulls up the blind revealing a window into another room. There are two desks separated by a wall-to-ceiling partition, effectively dividing the room in two, and various bits of electronic equipment. "The rest of you will watch from behind this one-way screen."
"Cool," she hears from somewhere in the group of know-it-all sixth formers.
Stella spins round. "Was that a volunteer?"
The students avert their eyes.
Stella moves towards the front row. "How about you, Abigail?" She turns from the well-groomed girl to the pustulous boy. "And you, wouldn't you like to have a go? What's your name?"
"So, that's our two volunteers. Thanks very much. Abigail, since you're so cynical, why don't you play the teacher?"
TEACHER: Wrong. [turns to Experimenter.] That's five he's got wrong. The next shock is 75 volts. Do you think it's all right to give it?
EXPERIMENTER: Please continue.
TEACHER: Wrong. 75 volts. The correct answer is shoe.
TEACHER: Hand - buy, plum, face, jump.
Stella escorts the conscripted volunteers out into the corridor and through another door into the antechamber at the other side of the one-way screen. She invites Wayne to sit down at a desk facing the partition between the two halves of the room. He looks a little nervous as she fastens a belt around his waist. "It's just a safety precaution," she says. "So that you don't jerk about with the shocks."
"It's not harmful, is it?" he says, as Stella takes a tube of electrode jelly and applies it to his wrists.
"Not really," says Stella. She tapes an electrode to each of his wrists. The wires run along the desk and under the partition. "The jelly should prevent any blisters or burns. Even if you don't manage to learn the words very well and Abigail ends up giving you some quite painful shocks, they won't cause any permanent tissue damage."
Wayne's acne seems to have spread in the last five minutes. His face looks like the inside of a pomegranate. "I'm not so sure," he says, shuffling in his seat as much as the tight belt around his waist permits him.
Stella scowls and looks at her watch. "If you want to drop out I suppose I could ask for another volunteer. But we're running short of time as it is." She looks at Abigail and sighs. "Or the two of you could swap roles if you're not happy. Would you mind being the learner, Abigail?"
Wayne shakes his head before Abigail can answer. "I'll do it," he says. "Just as long as you're sure it's not dangerous."
"Like I said," says Stella. "It could be quite painful but there's no long-term damage. Now, are you okay with that?"
The boy gulps and nods his head.
"Now I'll just run through the procedure," says Stella. "Abigail will be sitting on the other side of this partition. You won't be able to see each other but you should be able to hear her clearly enough. The rest of the group will be able to see both of you from the other side of the one-way screen. Now Abigail will read out a series of word pairs and you have to remember which words go together. Then she'll test you by reading out the first word of the pair along with four alternatives. If you pick the wrong one she'll give you an electric shock as a punishment. Is that clear?"
"Yes," says Wayne. "I understand."
LEARNER: Hey! This is fucking painful.
TEACHER: I'm just following the instructions. If you get it wrong I have to shock you. [turns to Experimenter.] Should I stop now?
EXPERIMENTER: The experiment requires that you continue.
TEACHER: He doesn't seem all that happy about it.
EXPERIMENTER: You must continue, Teacher.
TEACHER: Next one, Learner. Flat - man, bar, tub, neck.
Stella leads Abigail back out into the corridor and through another door that takes them to the other side of the divided room. On the desk is a bank of electronic equipment. Stella invites Abigail to take a seat at the desk while she explains how to operate the shock generator. On the instrument panel, a row of thirty lever switches are each labeled with a voltage ranging from 15 to 450 volts in 15-volt increments.
"I still don't think punishment works," says Abigail.
"I do hope you can approach it seriously," says Stella. "If you want to be a psychologist you need to keep an open mind. And follow the procedure exactly."
"Of course," says Abigail. "You have to be professional."
"That's right. Now, if you don't mind I'll just give you a 45-volt shock just to give you a feel of what it's going to be like for Wayne if he doesn't manage to learn the words." Stella smiles. "And to prove that the equipment is working."
"It does look kind of antique," says Abigail.
Stella nods. "Well, you know, university funding is always a bit of a problem." She places an electrode on Abigail's wrist and flicks a switch.
Abigail flinches. "Wow! That's quite a shock." She shakes her wrist and giggles.
"Remember, you have to shock him every time he gets it wrong. And each time you have to go up by one increment: start at 15, then 30, then 45 and all the way up to 450 if you have to."
"It's certainly different to filling in a personality questionnaire."
"And a lot more relevant, if you ask me," says Stella. She extracts some papers from her clipboard and places them on the desk before Abigail. "So, here are all your instructions. Let's get started. I'll be here with you if you need any help."
LEARNER: Let me out of here. I've had enough.
TEACHER: [to Experimenter] Could you at least check up on him?
EXPERIMENTER: Not once we've started the experiment.
TEACHER: But he wants out. [to Learner] Are you all right in there?
LEARNER: I'm not going to answer any more. Let me out.
EXPERIMENTER: Continue, please, Teacher.
TEACHER: I don't like this. It's not right.
EXPERIMENTER: The experiment requires that you continue.
TEACHER: Coat - nail, blue, tree, chair.
The door bursts open and Professor Jarvis lunges into the room, looking like Einstein on a bad-hair day. Behind him, the baseball-cap girl and the podgy girl hover ashen-faced in the corridor.
"Stop this now," barks the professor. "Stella Sanderson, you could be sent down for this."
Abigail turns round to face the intruders, turns away from the row of electric-shock switches and her list of enigmatically-coupled words. Once again, Stella is reminded of the fluctuations of late adolescence: one moment a sophisticated woman, the next a crumpled child.
"Hurry," says the baseball-cap girl, "let's get Wayne. Last thing we saw he was slumped over the desk."
"That girl who was sitting in front of me has called an ambulance," says the podgy girl, sniffing back her tears. "I hope she knows where to direct it."
Abigail looks from Stella to the professor in confusion. "I was just doing what she told me. She said it wouldn't do any lasting damage."
"Not to him, I imagine," says Professor Jarvis. "But I'm not sure I can say the same for the rest of you. I don't suppose it's what you expected when you were invited to the psychology department open day."
Stella smiles. It's not what she expected either when she decided to ditch the agreed programme and offer her group of students something different, but, she has to admit, it is all turning out to be quite interesting. There's much more human interest in a live experiment than in a pencil and paper personality test.
The podgy girl, Stella notes, is unable to maintain the detachment required of the experimental psychologist. Quite the reverse, in fact. "What are you talking about?" the girl screams at the professor. He has to grab hold of her wrists to stop her pummelling at his chest. "All those electric shocks. He was screaming in pain. He could be dead for all you know."
"I very much doubt it," says Professor Jarvis. He steps forward and taps on the partition. "This is Professor Jarvis speaking. Declare yourself this instant."
Silence. The sixth formers scrutinise the professor's face uneasily. He hesitates. "Ms Sanderson?"
In the doorway, the baseball-cap girl gasps. She steps aside as Wayne squeezes into the room. Despite the trouble that he is in, despite the fact that he might now never get his degree, he grins, triumphant, like a performer accepting his applause at the end of a show. It makes him look much more mature, Stella thinks, than the spotty adolescent sitting among the sixth formers an hour before.
"Wayne Campbell," he announces. "Second year joint honours."
"I thought you were dead," says the podgy girl.
Professor Jarvis shakes his head. "This is what we in the trade call a confederate of the experimenter: someone who looks like a naive subject but who is actually following a prescribed script."
EXPERIMENTER: So you see, the experiment isn't about learning at all. It's about assessing how much people are prepared to hurt a stranger when someone in authority tells them to.
TEACHER: Phew! So he wasn't really getting those shocks!
EXPERIMENTER: You definitely believed the shocks were genuine?
TEACHER: Of course I did. He was making enough noise about it.
EXPERIMENTER: And what did you feel like when you thought you were giving him electric shocks?
TEACHER: Really uncomfortable. I didn't like hurting him but I didn't want to let you down, either. You seemed so keen for me to keep going. I suppose I wanted to do a good job.
EXPERIMENTER: So what do you think of the experiment now?
TEACHER: Well, it's still hard to get my head round it. I thought I was in charge and he was the victim, when really it was the other way round. But I think it's kind of neat, in a way. I feel as if I've learnt something today.
"What the hell were you thinking of, Stella?"
Stella looks across the desk at Mike Matthews, her PhD supervisor, and grins. "I was just trying to make it interesting for them."
The tips of Mike's ears are very pink. "Interesting? What on earth gave you the idea that electric shocks would be interesting?"
"Well, you did, actually." Stella flutters her eyelashes in a manner she has been told men find endearing. "Your very first lecture, social psychology, module one. It came as a breath of fresh air after a term of pigeons learning to press levers and rats running round mazes. I'd been thinking about giving up psychology when you walked in and started telling us about real life."
Mike puts his head in his hands. "I can't see how what you did with those kids was about real life."
Stella looks him in the eye. "The fine line from the Milgram experiments to the Holocaust. The My Lai massacre. Abu Ghraib."
Mike laughs, although the sound is hardly distinguishable from the protest of an electric-shock victim. "Just following orders, eh? Although that seems to be the one thing that you, Stella, are incapable of doing. You were asked to take them through a simple personality test. Professor Jarvis is livid. He could have your grant stopped, you know."
Stella's bottom lip begins to quiver. "I only did it for you!"
"I don't see..."
Shamelessly, she lets the tears roll down her cheeks. "Yes. You told me how Professor Jarvis doesn't value your research. How if we don't get enough admissions he'll axe your research group. You said we had to make a good impression on the students. That the future of the department depended on it."
"I'm sorry, Stella, but I can't be held responsible for your behaviour. What if one of the parents decides to sue?"
"I thought it was what you wanted. I'd do anything for you."
He rummages in his desk drawer and brings out a box of tissues which he hands over to her. His actions may be sympathetic but his tone is harsh, distancing. "I can't have this. You're going to have to find yourself another supervisor."
Stella wipes her eyes. "You know the university rules on staff relationships with students."
"Of course I do."
"I've been thinking about speaking to Professor Jarvis about that time you gave me a lift home."
"Stella, where the hell is this leading? Nothing happened that night. I just dropped you off at your door."
Stella flashes him a pretty smile. "I know that. But Professor Jarvis might see it differently when I've spoken to him." Softly, so that she's not even sure that he hears her, she adds: "You see, I can't get thrown out of the university. The experiment requires that I continue."