Seth looked around the table at the test group gathered at Stanford University, their seven faces deep in thought. The task assigned was pointless but he would play along for two hours. He was good at this. This would be easy.
Last month Professor Anderson called him into his office. Seth sat and listened to the ticking of the antique clock on the wall while the old professor composed himself.
“Seth, I understand psychology is not the same as other scientific fields. The working of the human mind can be open to interpretation. But as things stand you know I can not pass your psycholinguistics final research paper. You have a brilliant mind, but this is not a class in creative writing”
Seth felt his face grow warm. “Seriously? Do you want me to just copy and paste meaningless papers together like the other students?.”
“I hear you. And you are not the first person to feel this way Seth.” Professor Anderson paused for a moment. “There’s something you can do to change this outcome for yourself. I’m going to give you one last chance. Your advisor Ken said you have very astute clinical observation skills. Is that true?”
“I think so.”
“Stanford University is looking for a post grad student to help manage a social experiment. They need a confederate to keep an eye on the candidates and take research notes. With covid restrictions they are sticking to recruiting in-state so they gave us a chance here in Northern California.” He continued, “This is a group consensus building experiment, and the confederates role is to play the devil’s advocate and contribute dissenting opinions to the group discussions to elevate the level of discord. Sounds interesting, huh?””
“Sounds ok, but what will the debate topic be?” Seth asked,
“The details can only be revealed during the test” the professor said, “They were clear that the confederate needs to keep detailed notes on the facial expressions of all the individuals, as analysis of body language in situations of disagreement is the theme of the study. How does that sound? We have a deal?”
Seth mulled his options. It didn't take long.
“Sign me up.”
Two week later after a 4 hour drive South, Seth was alert and ready in a conference room inside Stanford University's Provost’s building, sitting down with 7 others. A dignified looking woman came in and stood in front of them.
“Good morning, I’m Jessica Walters, the Vice Provost for Stanford University.” She smiled warmly at everyone. “You have been chosen from universities across the state of California to help us with an important mission. Remember, you have all signed an NDA and the information we will discuss today is confidential.
“With the covid pandemic, and the changes in enrollment, Stanford university will be eliminating one of our academic departments.
"While many majors face declining enrollments, we do live in the educational ecosystem of California, some academic areas contribute to others synergistically and we would like to collect your thoughts from across the state.
“We will present the preliminary reduction list chosen by the Stanford University New Direction committee. After our session we will receive your input on which academic department you have determined to be the least vital.”
Looking slightly stoic as she pulled the curtain off a presentation board, she revealed a colorfully designed banner showing the name of each department and the number of undergraduate and graduate students.
“This banner has been produced by the graphic design department, which just split off from the art department last year,” chuckling to herself as she pointed toward the top line on the list. Seth scanned the names:
Laboratory Animal Science
Native American Studies
This presentation was so professionally prepared Seth wouldn’t have guessed himself he was in a social experiment. They do things differently at Stanford.
“This session will have 3 parts.” She spoke louder. Everyone turned their attention back.
“In the first 30 minutes you will be asked to introduce yourselves and discuss your decision making process without making any references to the choices presented. I will interrupt immediately if that happens.” The Vice Provost smiled. “We will now begin by going around the table”
Seth jolted in his seat when he saw she was looking at him.
“Hello everyone, I'm Seth, this seems to be a very important project today. And I’m happy to contribute.“
He looked around the table and smiled confidently until the Vice Provost nodded to the next person.
“Hi I’m Bethaney and I'm in my senior year studying biology at UC Santa Barbara. It’s amazing to be here today to contribute to such a big change for a fellow California university. My decision making process is one of empathy for all the thoughts of you all today.”
She continued to explain her background speaking confidently, making eye contact with everyone in the room. Seth took mental notes.
The next subject told a story about a disagreement with his siblings he helped resolve. It went on like this and the stories became longer and more detailed until finally it was the remaining person’s turn to speak.
“The time limit is almost up, so I'll keep it short. I’m Derek. Fourth year architecture student at UC Berkeley. Good to be here. Peace out.” then did a mic drop gesture.
In the break room, he grabbed a water, and while everyone was chatting and texting he used the chance to type some notes sitting in the back corner where no one could see:
#1 I should have talked more, sorry professor.
#3 #6 mild introversion
#7 strong family bonds
#4 highly opinionated, seeked affirmation
#2 leadership qualities
He then added more specific details for each candidate, he had a great memory for details.
Time went quickly, and they were all back in the conference room.
“In the 2nd section you will present your choice. Feel free to explain your choice in whichever manner you think fit. Let’s begin!” the vice news provost said.
Seth was ready to begin speaking, but the vice provost nodded to the person on the other side of the table.
“My turn?” Derek gave a nervous chuckle. “In my honest opinion, the French language major should be dropped. In the business school all the French professors speak English anyways.” Derek then talked more detail about the business school and Silicon Valley startups.
Test subjects Briana, Alicia, Shannon, Gabriel and Marcus also explained their choices and their credentials.
Bethaney on his left explained her choice, making a solid argument for the termination of the Archeology department, pulling her hair behind her ear every few minutes before speaking and adding some more, and then finally it was Seth's turn.
Seth had been keeping track of their choices with his fingers under the table. With his last two remaining curled fingers, he made a choice. The major he thought was the most important.
“Laboratory Animal Science,” Seth paused for dramatic effect.
“Laboratory Animal Science should be removed from the curriculum, as in 2022, the experiments that were previously done with animals, can now be simulated with artificial intelligence and DNA sequencing. There should be no room in Stanford for the use of animals in research.”
Everyone clapped. That went over well. But, he wondered if they were going to pick his choice now? He needed to backtrack in the next session so as not to contaminate the test results. He also knew the ethical treatment of animal was an important area of study, as newly development pharmaceuticals were never going to used directly on humans without animal testing in the foreseeable future.
“That concludes this section, panelists we will now have a ten minute break. Coffee and doughnuts are on the reception desk”, the Vice Provost announced.
Seth chose a doughnut and ate while he typed his research notes.
While they were waiting for the panel to restart, Seth noticed Bethaney glancing his way. He was thinking he should ask her out to lunch, when the door opened again, and the Vice Provost, mock panel discussion host, returned, and ushered them back into the meeting room.
“In the 3rd section we will have an open debate and see if a consensus can be reached. You can discuss freely amongst yourself and I will return in 30 minutes to hear your conclusion”
Seth was about to speak up and backpedal on his choice when Bethaney jumped in.
“I’d like to say, that..” Bethaney said and looked his way. “What’s your name?”
“I’d like to say that Seth made an inspiring case against animal testing, but we need to consider that his elegant words might blind us to the actual needs of this university. Within California, Stanford has produced countless Nobel prize winners in Medicine and Science. The decision to stop science should not be based on funding on enrollment. I believe we need to select a different major, one not a core part of the university.”
Everyone chipped in, most agreed with her. He was off the hook. Over the next ten minutes they all restated their favorite choices again, and argued back and forth. Seth felt his head growing heavy with the banality of a long debate between French and Archeology.
At last, one of the subjects tried to build consensus.
“I see most of us now split between 3 choices, Archeology, French and Native American studies. I find eliminating Native American studies an acceptable middle ground compromise,' Derek said.
“What! Decision by committee?“ Seth blurted out.
Seth felt his face burning with irritation at a such a dumb way to make a decision.
Everyone was disagreeing again. How much longer would this go on? Seth decided to take a breather and cool off for a bit. He kept an eye on their body language for his research notes.
Finally Derek raised his voice again. “3 minutes left. Do you all want to keep arguing or do you want to decide on something?”
Shannon said she thought Alicia’s choice, the Art department, was a good choice as it's enrollment was the lowest. Three more people mumbled that though they thought their own choices were better, they were joining to support Alicia’s choice.
“Because everyone here is so insistent I'll agree also,” Bethaney said. Her face twitched in irritation.
He didn't like Alicia’s choice at all. Art? But he wasn’t sure which one was better, and at least test subject Bethaney, who was very smart, didn't see there was anything wrong with that choice.
“Me too,” Seth said.
The last person, loud Derek, also gave in and agreed.
Seth felt deflated that he didn’t push the disagreements further, but thought the professor would at least see he had put up a good fight for 1 hour and 57 minutes. He would make up for it with detailed notes.
After the Vice Provost released the group, she had been surprisingly earnest at listening to their decision and thanking everyone in the group, they went back to the lounge and Seth returned to writing his notes while his mind was fresh.
Frustrating, should have held out longer. Was distracted emotionally.
#3 #4 #7 visible signs of anger toward the end of session…
“Seth, you can stop taking notes.” a familiar voice said.
“What are you doing here Professor?!”
“We played a little game on you today,” Professor Anderson said.
“Everyone was a test subject. You are in fact all graduate psychology students,.”
Seth was in shock. He recalled all the test subjects watching him very closely while he was speaking, their facial tells showing genuine interest.
“Oh my god! Is the art program being axed? Is thar what were you testing?
“No, the art program won’t be terminated. Sorry but you will have to wait to find out when the paper is published, academia you know? The only thing you need to think about today is that you passed my class.”
Seth felt relieved. But then laughed and said “I feel so used.”
“To use one of my own postgrads was in fact, my last choice. But you have become part of what I think will be a groundbreaking study. Congrats Seth!”
Inside Dr Anderson also felt relieved, the grant committee told him this was the last study they would fund. The previous 7 years of social experiments had not had any successes.
A few minutes later Dr Anderson would type his own research note:
In a high stakes decision making scenario, being led to believe in their own superiority influenced a group of individuals with highly oppositional personalities, to submit to a fictional group decision. This is the first study to result in a 100% compliance rate, and it sure to have implications for real world situations. I would like to thank social media powerhouse Nagle again for funding today’s study. Rgds, Professor Anderson.