Can you think of a psychological experiment which doesn’t involve participants doing an assigned task? I can’t. It might be possible with one of those studies in public spaces, where you construct different environments in different cities and watch the effects, but I can’t think of one. In any case, the vast majority of experiments in psychology involve people doing assigned tasks.
Doing assigned tasks is a subset of human behavior with particular qualities. For example, consider Milgram’s study where he got participants to administer electric shocks to what they believed to be a real confederate in another room. Most of the participants, infamously, continued to administer shocks even up to painful and dangerous levels. Suppose, instead of that, Milgram had just left the set up in an open space, and people had just happened upon it, and had chosen to sit down and administer electric shocks to someone. Psychologically, that’s a very different action, right? Or suppose, instead of that, someone had had the idea from scratch and had constructed their own electric shock system, found a participant, strapped them into the chair, and administered electric shocks. That’s arguably criminal behavior and different again.
Assigned tasks are a lot of what we do. Most of our lives at school and work are occupied with assigned tasks, and then there are socially assigned tasks, such as when we respond to invitations. We also assign ourselves tasks, when we make resolutions and set formal goals and plans.
I think what happens when we take on an assigned tasks, is that we suspend part of our attention and critical thinking, and that frees up attentional resources for the task in hand. That’s the whole point of assigning our own tasks or working as part of a hierarchy – we take on the task to completion and do not distract ourselves with its purpose, or what else we might be doing instead. Take the famous framing experiment by Kahneman, for example (pdf). Participants were given the following task:
Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?
In many ways, this is a meaningless question. Of course, if you were really in a situation like that, you’d need a lot more information than is there. You would doubt the likelihood estimates – what are they based on? You would consult with experts, and you would not make a decision right away based on only that information. But the task is not to really get involved in administering medical programs – the tasks is to make a decision about a theoretical problem. It’s like a game. The risks and benefits of the decision are based on your own self-esteem – did you say something intelligent or stupid? Will the person asking the question be pleased or not? According to the rules of the game, behaving as if it were a real situation (“I need more information!”) would be inappropriate.
Isn’t this a problem? If we’re always studying how humans behave when they’re given assigned tasks, and not in other circumstances, aren’t we getting a totally biased picture? Especially, as Milgram showed so clearly, people are likely to suspend their own judgment when engaged in tasks assigned by someone else.