Many moons ago, eager to impress and to rise above the clatter of all the other undergrads, I started looking for RA work. I kept my expectations low. I expected that as an untrained, unqualified undergrad I'd be doing menial grunt work. I was not disappointed. I spent three weeks coding videos for specific behaviours of couples arguing in the lab. It was depressing. I walked away feeling like a bad boyfriend, but relieved that everyone fights about the same thing - money, sex and alcohol.
Despite my inauspicious introduction to the world of experimental psychology I knew what I wanted to do. Not too long later I was asked by the professor running the study if I wanted to take the lead on a bigger, more involved study.
He (and his colleague) hypothesized that a thing called Executive Function would beneficially assist men in impressing women. Executive Function, essentially, is your ability to inhibit certain behaviours. It's a very high level cognitive capacity, and relates to all kinds of things, like delayed gratification and being a successful social agent. However, Executive Function (or 'Ego Depletion') is a finite resource. A classic study involving this phenomena involved putting participants in a waiting room with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies (or a bowl of radishes) and permitting them to either a) eat some, or b) not eat any. Afterwards, participants from both conditions were asked to persist on some impossible problem solving task. Those who were tempted but barred from eating the warm, fresh cookies persisted for far less time than those who were allowed to eat the cookies, or those who were allowed (or not allowed) to eat the unappealing radishes.
Executive Function is more than just not eating a cookie, though. It's you inhibiting the urge to punch your boss when he screws you over, it's inhibiting sexual desire and action in inappropriate circumstances or with inappropriate people (i.e. situations with dire consequences), and the list goes on. The question is why, if we have such a capacity, is it finite?
Some evidence has been produced that demonstrated that two participants (one white, one black) in an American University, when asked to speak on race relations, had a more beneficial, enjoyable and positive experience when depleted than when undepleted (i.e. in command of their full executive faculties).
From an evolutionary perspective, though, this is fairly banal. What if Executive Function - when depleted - allows people to form more favourable social impressions ... on the opposite sex! There must be a reason it's finite, and it may be to facilitate a mating advantage. If, when depleted, we make better impressions, then we may earn ourselves an increased chance at the procreative act*.
So we took a number of participants, depleted half, and stuck them in a room with a pretty girl and a hidden camera. The girl was a confederate, and was in on the trick, but was blind to condition of each participant. They then engaged in a 10-minute unstructured conversation, after which time both parties went away and answered a survey about the experience.
What did we find? Well... nothing. Not a damn thing. No meaningful p-values at all... except one. Which showed that our manipulation did the opposite of what we intended.
So the study was a bust. My first study, was a bust. In fact, it was backwards. I was nervous - as a first time undergrad - walking into the professor's office knowing that there was nothing in the data. Was it me? Did I plan it wrong? Did I confound the study somehow? Did I miss something critical, something that would have turned the whole thing around?
Probably not. We probably used the wrong kind of depletion. For instance, warm cookies makes you persist less in impossible problems, but would it cause you to be unable to inhibit saying certain things.... Thus, it may follow that the updating task we used (an n-back task [download it here]) depleted the wrong thing. It may not stop you being a cagey conversation partner, but may make you a crappier black-jack player (a task which involves counting cards, working on and updating probabilities, and taking measureable risks).
Despite being nervous the Prof just said 'Such is research...' and that was that. It wasn't me, it was the nature of the beast. Now, as an undergrad, I have a much better idea of what I'm getting in to. When I do honours next year, and when I finally hit the PhD, I have a slightly improved idea of what to expect. Though I didn't get any decent p-values, I did get a far better idea of what it's like to be a researcher and academic... and a stronger, more clear idea about what I want to do, and how I want to go about it.
*Seriously... ever met a girlfriend/boyfriend when under the influence of alcohol?
Apfelbaum EP, & Sommers SR (2009). Liberating effects of losing executive control. Psychological science, 20 (2), 139-43 PMID: 19170942 Muraven M, & Baumeister RF (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological bulletin, 126 (2), 247-59 PMID: 10748642
Muraven M, & Baumeister RF (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological bulletin, 126 (2), 247-59 PMID: 10748642