One of the eerier themes in psychology papers is the extreme susceptibility of people's thoughts and acts to incidental details in their surroundings. For instance, this paper from a recent European Journal of Social Psychology (I was led to it by this recent news story), in which people rated some paragraphs, supposedly from a student essay. Those who used red ink found more errors, and gave lower grades, than those who'd used blue.
Pretty disturbing -- like this Canadian study published last winter, which examined five years of candidate-interview records at the University of Toronto Medical School. It found that applicants interviewed on rainy days received consistently lower scores, and estimated that rain has the same impact on a would-be doctor's chances of admission as a 10 percent reduction in her score on the Medical College Admission Test.
We'd all like to think these ephemeral effects will cancel each other out—if you're interviewed in a downpour in Toronto, maybe your Chicago appointment will take place under blue skies—but we have no proof this is so.
Aside from the practical questions about tests' fairness and effectiveness, these kinds of results also raise a challenge to our self-understanding. We imagine ourselves to be more or less stable and predictable through rain and shine—but capable of big changes when we're hit with big events, like fighting in a war, losing a child or winning a lottery.
From recent research, though, it's possible to construct an alternate model. In that one, some parts of the self simply never change (in the 1970s, studies famously found, for instance, that neither losing one's legs nor winning a lottery has much effect on people's long-term sense of how happy they are). And other parts of the mind change every minute: Voting in a school seems to make people more willing to support education spending than voting in a police station, for example, while just thinking about "old people" words like "Florida," "bingo," "traditional" and "helpless" caused undergraduates to walk more slowly than their peers.
Constant spinning on an unchanging foundation: It's an interesting possibility, but it would really screw up our notion of free will. That, after all, assumes I am consistent through minor ups and downs, but altered by big experiences. Thus "I," the conscious part of my mind, know the reasons for my thoughts, perceptions and actions. So I can choose among them. Hence we say, "ever since I had kids myself, I see political issues differently."
But if my take on politics is a mix of rock-solid traits I can't change and passing influences that I can't detect, and which always change, to what extent do "I" have a say in deciding what I do?
Rutchick, A., Slepian, M., & Ferris, B. (2010). The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of evaluative standards European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.753
Redelmeier, D., & Baxter, S. (2009). Rainy weather and medical school admission interviews Canadian Medical Association Journal, 181 (12), 933-933 DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.091546