Cornell’s Psychology Department and Their Experiments with Me and My Brother

28 Mar

Barth in Life magazine

One of the stranger aspects to living in the Ithaca area is that if you live here long enough, Cornell’s Psychology Department will probably use you in one of their experiments. My brother, Barth, was the first one in the family to be included in one of their investigations. The experiment was designed to test depth perception. The toddlers started by crawling on a wooden surface some distance off the floor with their attentive mothers close by. When they reached clear glass, some of them continued on across it, while others like my brother refused. In Life Magazine’s June 15, 1959 issue, my brother is pictured in what I remember as his blue playsuit. Life states that “Looking dubious, 14-month old Barth Mapes peers through glass into the drop-off. He cautiously patted the glass, but firmly refused to crawl out.”

I’ve always been a little confused about the motivations behind the pursuit of psychology, but I understand that part of that kind of study involves the evaluation of human behavior as we develop throughout our lives. Barth has been consistent in this behavior throughout his life. Predictably, he has vertigo and gets queasy just thinking about the tops of castles, walkways over bridges, and the parapets of towers. This is true, except during his working life, when he often has had to triumph over it, as when he was forced to climb up and down ladders on the outside of an oil rig where he was working in the North Sea. I hope he gave Cornell some good information. As a family, we were mainly excited about the fact that he ended up in Life magazine.

The obituary of Eleanor J. Gibson in the NY Times explains her experiment and how she set it up:

As a teenager, I participated in an Adolescent Psych class that was being taught in the Psychology Department. Each student was assigned an adolescent and naturally my mother volunteered me. I don’t remember the name of my student, but she was a pretty brunette with a generous attitude, which was a good thing because I felt plenty awkward. Right away I warned her that I wasn’t popular and that my life wasn’t exciting. In other words, she wasn’t going to be experiencing the life of a cheerleader or class president. She said that my situation was probably more interesting because of that, but I wasn’t convinced. For a semester we got together on the weekends and did the things I usually did. Once, after one such adventure, we stopped at my house. I was mortified because my father was sitting in his T-shirt and undershorts, reading the paper. Dads did that back in my generation. I’m not sure why, but it was fairly common. She thought he was great–warm and very friendly. He turned out to be one of her favorite parts of getting to know me. Of course, she had to meet Jeanne, my best friend, and we went on some long walks, since that was one of the things I used to do to occupy my time.

Many years later a young family friend participated in a Cornell Human Development experiment into brainwashing. What those in charge of the study purported to want to find out is whether or not thoughts could be implanted into a child’s brain. An assumption that has often been made about children is that they are honest and don’t lie because of their innocence. However, the problem of brainwashing sometimes comes up in custody cases when one parent alleges sex abuse that may or may not have actually occurred. In the case of the family friend, a young boy, he was “impressed” with the idea that a big creature lived in his basement. He came out of the experiment fully believing this to be true.

“False Memory in Children: Data, Theory, and Legal Implications” by Valerie F. Reyna, Britain Mills, Steven Estrada, and Charles J. Brainerd

Although I don’t know if these researchers are the ones involved in the experiment in which the family friend participated, the comments therein go a long way to explaining what is meant by false memory.

Watch out or Cornell will recruit you for an experiment!

2 Responses to “Cornell’s Psychology Department and Their Experiments with Me and My Brother”

  1. DH March 28, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    I think this is an interesting topic. You should digest the basics of the study for your readers (instead of linking to it). I’d also like to know if there were any experiments or studies gone wrong or having some sort of unexpected consequence.

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