In Which I Inadvertently Subject Myself to One of the Most Controversial Psychology Experiments of All Time
It was the most beautiful airport security line I'd ever seen. Where exactly this beauty came from, I couldn't quite say, but there it was: an incredible aura of magic and mystery surrounding this crowd of waiting people, the likes of which I'd never experienced before. I felt awash with emotion: gratitude, for the guards who patiently asked for our boarding passes and IDs; kinship, with my fellow line-standers who complied so diligently with their requests; and awe, at this remarkable--nay, inspiring--feat of organizational prowess.
"You guys run such a tight ship!" I told a nearby officer. His head tilted slightly to the left.
"No, I mean, it's all so civilized!" I said.
"Thank you?" he said.
The line wasn't the first thing that had wowed me that morning in Denver. On the way to the airport, I'd gazed in reverence out the taxi window at what I was convinced was the most majestic mountain range on earth. As we passed by a couple unremarkable suburban houses I'd been devastated by their cuteness. I'd been blown away by how amazingly well the driver had navigated the wide straight roads toward the terminal.
"You the man!" I'd said to him as he'd lifted my luggage from the trunk, and tried to give him a high five.
"Um. You too, sir," he'd said.
In fairness, there were reasons to be happy. Yesterday I'd helped wrap up a weeklong video project which, though it qualified for the highest echelons of dorkdom (an Introductory Psychology online series), had, for me, been extremely gratifying and enjoyable. I was headed back to my New York apartment to spend Thanksgiving with people I actually liked. I didn't have chronic back pain or early-onset cataracts or massive credit card debt. Things were looking up.
"Omg I am totally blissing out right now," I texted a friend, "It's all so good!"
At the same time, this whole chest-exploding thing I was feeling as I unlaced my shoes and placed them in the grey plastic bin was, by any standards, a little over the top. My friends might call me optimistic--excitable, even. But this level of exuberance? It was off the charts. I emerged from the line and went to the waiting area, where I sat and watched the planes taxi back and forth along the tarmac. "What paragons of mechanical engineering!" I thought to myself. "Lo! The wonders of technology!"
It was a full three days later when I realized the issue. I was back in New York, about to eat a turkey sandwich with cheddar cheese. As it happens, I am lactose intolerant. I can stomach a bit of butter on my baked potato, and even a slice of pizza every now and then, but a bowl of cereal or an ice cream cone is outside of my wheelhouse.
Thankfully, Lactaid, a little pill with the appropriate enzyme, helps. As usual, therefore, before I ate my sandwich, I removed a little pill bottle from my bag, shook two of the white oblong pills into my hand, and popped them into my mouth.
I spat them back out. Something wasn't right.
I picked the pills off the table and held them in my palm for inspection. On each of the little white pills was written "IP109." I could have sworn that the Lactaid pills just said the word "Lactaid." I dumped the contents of the pill bottle across the table. A rainbow of colors emerged. I've got Tums in there, plus different kinds of Ibuprofen, plus several pink Allegras, as well as the Lactaid. (I know, I know--I really should keep them separate. But this is so much more space-efficient!) I picked out several of the white pills. Sure enough, some of them said Lactaid. Others, however, said IP109.
"Ooh," I said aloud.
A mistake had been made.
What had happened was, a few years ago, when I'd gotten my wisdom teeth out, I'd been given a supply of Oxycodone. You know how it goes: sometimes you have a few left over. These I kept in a box for extenuating circumstances. However, in a distracted fit of cleaning and consolidation, to which I am occasionally prone, I must have dumped these into the miscellaneous bottle. And so, that morning in Denver, moments after I'd slopped creamy gravy all over my breakfast biscuits, I had taken, instead of two Lactaid pills, twice the recommended dose of a powerful narcotic.
But could the drugs alone explain the full extent of the unbridled joy I had experienced at the airport? No: the key was in the psychology of it, in my knowledge structure about the situation. To wit: the power of those pills lay in the very fact that I'd taken them--and didn't know it.
This idea is best illustrated in a now-famous (and controversial) study conducted by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer in the early 1960's, who at the time were developing a radical new idea about how things make us feel.
The crux of their theory was that, normally, we assume that our emotions come straight from our hearts. If someone were to ask, "How ya feelin?", we might pause, reflect a little, and then report based on our inner experience. "I'm feeling pretty rad," we might respond, if rad is what we are, in fact, feeling.
But Schachter and Singer had a different idea. They proposed that our emotions are influenced by the "appraisals"--that is, the labels--we give them. Basic arousal (just psychological excitement) can, depending on how it's construed, turn, like an incipient butterfly, into a range of complex emotions. If I'm feeling "nervous," but start calling it "excited," I can, said Schachter and Singer, fundamentally alter my inner experience of the whole thing. (Interestingly, this idea has been verified in a more modern experiment--people who repeatedly said "I'm excited" before speaking gave better public performances.)
How did they verify their idea? Schachter and Singer recruited about two hundred subjects ostensibly to test a vitamin supplement they called "Supproxin." In fact, what they actually did is inject them with adrenaline, a hormone which, you might imagine, makes people freak out--that is, experience trembling hands, faster heart rate, and quicker breath. (Needless to say, it's a little harder to give people actual hormone injections these days without their explicit consent.)
Next, the experimenters divided the people into several groups; let's focus on the two most interesting: call them Groups A and B. Members of Group A they told the truth: the injection would cause increased heart rate and trembling. In contrast, they outright lied to Group B: they told them the injection would make them feel calm and relaxed--the opposite of the case.
After subjects took the injection, they went to a waiting area. Unbeknownst to them, a "confederate"--someone in on the joke, so to speak--had been planted in the area. He had been instructed to act happy--flying a paper airplane, crumpling up paper and making shots at the wastebasket, and playing with a hula hoop he'd found in the waiting room.
What happened? Imagine you're a member of Group A. You've been told that injection you got might make you jumpy. And sure enough, you start feeling just that: your heart beats faster, you start sweating, your hands tremble. You ask yourself, "Why am I freaking out?" To this, though, you have an easy answer: you've been already told the drug will have that effect. So you have a legitimate source to which to attribute your arousal.
Now suppose you're in Group B. You've been told the injection will make you calm. But inside, you're freaking out. What's the reason? None that you can think of! Suddenly you are left with an explanatory gap: you're expecting to feel calm, but you're highly aroused. And here's where we find the crucial leap: people in this condition, left with no internal source to which to attribute their arousal, start looking to the outside world. Inspired by the happy confederate playing hula hoop, members of Group B begin acting--and feeling--exactly the same way. "I'm feeling good," they might be thinking, "And it's not because of the drug. The source must be in the world. What a wonderful world!"
And my god, did the world, that morning in the Denver airport, look wonderful indeed. As I slid into my window seat and snapped on my seat belt, a beautiful warm glow spread across my chest and up to my head, filling me with an irrepressible confidence that this year, which, news-wise, felt like one of the shittiest on record, with its face-palm-y court decisions and juvenile politics and barbarian horde rising up out of the Middle East like something from the 7th century, was in some sense a necessary growing pain for a still-young and hopeful human species, which, for all its idiocy, could still be good. Finally, and for the first time, I felt I was seeing the world the way it was meant to be seen.
Of course, that was probably all drug-induced bullshit. Let's be real: there are so many possible ways we could screw something up in the coming decades that the odds we'll have amounted to anything worth talking about by century's end are slim to none. At the same time, all we need as grounds for optimism is a nonzero forecast for sun. In the immortal words of Lloyd Christmas from the movie Dumb & Dumber: "So you're saying there's a chance!"
The makers of Oxycodone should change their directions label. "For best results," it should read, "Have friend slip into morning oatmeal."