Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Communication stripped to the barest minimum?

Hays, D. G. (1973). "Language and Interpersonal Relationships." Daedalus 102(3): 203-216. The following passage is from pp. 204-205:
The experiment strips conversation down to its barest essentials by depriving the subject of all language except for two pushbuttons and two lights, and by suggesting to him that he is attempting to reach an accord with a mere machine. We brought two students into our building through different doors and led them separately to adjoining rooms. We told each that he was working with a machine, and showed him lights and pushbuttons. Over and over again, at a signal, he would press one or the other of the two buttons, and then one of two lights would come on. If the light that appeared corresponded to the button he pressed, he was right; otherwise, wrong. The students faced identical displays, but their feedback was reversed: if student A pressed the red button, then a moment later student B would see the red light go on, and if student B pressed the red button, then student A would see the red light. On any trial, therefore, if the two students pressed matching buttons they would both be correct, and if they chose opposite buttons they would both be wrong.

We used a few pairs of RAND mathematicians; but they would quickly settle on one color, say red, and choose it every time. Always correct, they soon grew bored. The students began with difficulty, but after enough experience they would generally hit on something. Some, like the mathematicians, chose one color and stuck with it. Some chose simple alternations (red-green-red-green). Some chose double alternations (red-red-green-green). Some adopted more complex patterns (four red, four green, four red, four green, sixteen mixed and mostly incorrect, then repeat). The students, although they were sometimes wrong, were rarely bored. They were busy figuring out the complex patterns of the machine.

But where did the patterns come from? Although neither student knew it, they arose out of the interaction of two students.

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