Monday, December 17, 2007

What Do You Think About When Watching The Nutcracker?

Saturday afternoon was, I think (believe it or not), my first time watching The Nutcracker. My wife, son, and I were bumped from our back-of-the-room seats and compensated with VIP seats, third row center. Early into the performance, I started thinking about the amazing opulence celebrated, maybe even taken for granted, in the ballet; and then about the opulence of symphonies and ballets in general and critics of luxury like Marx and Peter Singer and Mozi. Then I thought about the fact that I was thinking such things, while my wife was simply enjoying the ballet. [Update Jan 15, 2014: I doubt that my wife was "simply enjoying the ballet" (per the discussion in comments below); and I no longer even think I know what it would take for such a statement to be true.] I thought about why boys want to be soldiers, and about changing views of corporal punishment, the strangeness of wanting pearls, the sexuality of the costumes, whether too many pirouettes will damage the brain.

And then I wondered this: What if we gave everyone in the audience "beepers" that went off randomly a couple times during the show, asking people to report on their experiences, thoughts, feelings, sensations, whatever, just before the beep? (You know I've been getting into beepers!) Surely someone has done this sort of thing?

Russ Hurlburt and I have randomly beeped people during our talks. So far, among about 10 beeped experiences we've discussed with audience members, not a single person has reported being focused primarily on the content of the talk.

Prediction: People will, if asked after the fact, report much higher rates of absorption in movies, lectures, performances, etc., than one would see if one did a random sampling study. That wouldn't be a bad thing, necessarily. In a way, it's compatible with a much richer, personal, life-involving experience of the performance....


Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I'm not sure when you write "Surely someone has done this sort of thing?" whether you're referring to the use of beepers in general or the use of beepers to study how the mind wanders, but both have been done.

Just in case you're not familiar with the former, in psychology, giving people beepers and asking them to rate something whenever they go off is called 'experience sampling' and there are many studies which have used this technique.

One recent study looked exactly at the experience of wandering thoughts, particularly in relation to working memory function.

There are some incredibly inventive studies using this technique and it's becoming increasingly popular.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, thanks Vaughan! As it happens, I've done some experience sampling studies myself. I haven't done a thorough survey of the literature, but I'm not aware of anyone having tried experience sampling multiple individuals at the same artistic performance. Reactions to one performance (absorption, thoughts, emotions) could then be compared to those of another performance, possibly illuminating the aesthetic differences between the performances as well as issues in the psychology and philosophy of art.

MT said...

"...while my wife was simply enjoying the ballet."

She would say that. A good wife, she.

I think it might be even weirder how minds wander at an orchestra performance, where "the show" is incidental to the sound. Except I suppose it's less universally clear in that case when a person's thought is not about the music.

Regarding whether this sort of thing has been done, there's the old factoid regarding the number of times a day men and women think about sex on average, which suggests thought logging at least, if not random sampling. Incidentally, I think a sure recipe for selection bias would be if they extrapolated those averages from samples collected exclusively during a ballet performance.

I think any time a person is in the customary role of a passive audience member attending a talk or other performance he or she ought to be expected to engage in personal assessment of the performer in every sort of regard that we care about other people. We are animals after all. How much of a job interview does one spend thinking about what's said?

Bahia Portfolio said...

I was a theater major in university, and as such had a chance to both watch and be involved in many plays, dances, and musicals. In my experience, the action/atmosphere on stage almost always prompted me to think about other things; especially if it was a good piece of theater. In fact, I feel that the more artistic and in a way engaging the piece of theater, the more it caused me to reflect on other issues, usually concurrently, rather than afterwards.

Especially in dance and music based pieces, my mind wanders as my eyes and ears intake the piece. But in my opinion, it is a good piece of art of any form that provokes you to think of things outside of the immediate realm of the art itself.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Lauren and MT. Yes, the whole audience was probably wandering all over the place! It would be cool to study this systematically. If only I had 17 careers....

The "thinking about sex" studies are methodologically horrible, by the way. If I recall correctly, participants were given click-counters to keep in their pockets and they were told to click them every time they thought of sex. At least two problems come to mind: Clicking the clicker may itself make you think of the experiment and of sex. There are serious feedback loop issues here. And also how many teenage boys do you think would want to come back and say they never thought about sex? It will be a competition to see who thinks about it more.

When Hurlburt gives people beepers to randomly sample their experience, he finds that reports of thinking about sex are relatively uncommon. Now it's possible that thoughts of sex are underreported in his methodology, since he probe details of the sampled experience and people may be embarrassed to talk about sexual thoughts.

I suspect people overestimate the extent to which they have sexual and other interesting thoughts, because the interesting ones are the ones they remember. (This was surely true of me at the Nutcracker too.)

John Sutton said...

Different kind of experience sampling, but Kate Stevens' team in Sydney has used a portable
Audience Response Facility (pARF) to get continuous responses of audience members to contemporary dance works: eg and

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the link, John -- looks interesting!