1594: Human Subjects

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Human Subjects
After meeting with a few of the subjects, the IRB actually recommended that you stop stressing out so much about safety guidelines.
Title text: After meeting with a few of the subjects, the IRB actually recommended that you stop stressing out so much about safety guidelines.


This strip plays on certain experiments involving human subjects. Ponytail is questioning the reliability of Megan's experimental results, given that her human subjects appear to be extremely unusual and surprisingly evil.

In the second panel, she mentions that several people in one study had been arrested for arson. Megan begins to suggest that the arson is a side effect of whatever is being tested before she learns that the arsonists are in the control group – that is, the group that is not subjected to whatever is being tested and is used as a comparison to see the differences in the people who are actually being tested. This result is "troubling", as the control group would not be expected to have such a high rate of incidence of arsonists. The implication is that her subjects are not representative of the general population, but appear to have been selected from a group unusually fond of arson. Perhaps she recruited them through an announcement that catered in some way to arsonists. An alternate explanation comes from comic 790: Control, in which Randall notes his hobby of sneaking into experiments and giving LSD to the control groups. Yet another explanation could be that Ponytail went looking for some clusters of characteristics in the sample population, which had no connection to the study criteria, and happened upon the arson arrests - such clusters are expected if you look at enough different characteristics.

The third panel alludes to the prisoner's dilemma, in which two subjects must independently decide whether to "collaborate" with or "betray" the other subject based on different rewards for each choice (often framed as a different length of prison sentence, or a different amount of money). The rewards tier are selected so that the outcomes for each individual from best to worst are: betraying a collaborator, collaborating with a collaborator, betraying a betrayer, collaborating with a betrayer. The thought experiment is considered interesting as it's uncertain what the most logical course of action, as choosing betrayal always improves one's situation, yet being in identical situations with no knowledge of each other, it's also logical for both prisoners to make the same choice and both collaborating is better than both betraying. Of course, it would not be expected that normal people would simply betray each other for no reason, without benefiting from it in any way.

The last panel references the Milgram experiment, in which subjects were instructed by experimenters to administer electric shocks to an unseen third party. The unseen third party was part of the experiment and pretended to be in agony. As shocks escalated they would beg for them to stop. The results suggest that people will continue to administer harm, despite the pleading of the victim, simply if told to do so by an authority figure, even when no incentive is provided to the subject to continue. In this case, however, the actual experiment did not involve electric shocks, and thus suggests that the subjects, of their own volition, brought equipment to produce electric shock and simply engaged in the activity unprompted.

In each of these cases, the subjects seem to have some "negative" psychological traits. While it might not be unusual to find one or two people with such traits in a randomly selected group, the fact that all three experiments contain multiple subjects with these traits (and seemingly the same traits in each study) is very unusual, given that most were not studies on psychology, but studies of drugs and moisterizers. Obviously, there would be no need for electric shocks and such in a studies like this[citation needed], and Megan's claim that a side effect of using the investigational drug is arson is unlikely if it wasn't treating psychological issues. Even if it was, arson is a very specific issue that is unlikely to not coexist with other problems.

The title text refers to safety procedures normally required by institutional review boards, which are centralized groups within universities that ensure that experiments are ethical and safe. The implication is that for an IRB to recommend dispensing with safety procedures after meeting the subjects, the subjects must really, really deserve bad treatment. Or that after hanging out with the jerks in the study they are more relaxed on rulebreaking, and adopting their mindset. Or the members of the IRB are, like the human subjects, just awful people. Or that Megan is selecting for these subjects, or causing these abnormalities, as a side effect of spending (probably significantly) more effort than is necessary to adhere to the procedures.

The overall theme of experiments that are overwhelmingly skewed by outlier human factors is in itself reminiscent of the recent discovery that many psychological experiments cannot be replicated. That news made quite a bit of noise in the world of science and even made its way in the general press. Just like in the experiments that could not be replicated, it is likely that if the experiments in this comic were attempted again, the outcome would be drastically different than the one achieved here.


[Ponytail and Megan sit at a desk.]
Ponytail: We're concerned that some of your results may be tainted by the fact that your human subjects are awful.
Megan: What do you mean?
[Ponytail picks up a sheet of paper.]
Ponytail: Several participants in your drug trial were arrested for arson.
Megan: Side effects can be unpredictable.
Ponytail: They were in the control group.
[Zoom in on Ponytail.]
Ponytail: In your prisoner's dilemma study, 80% of the participants chose to betray their partners before the experimenter had a chance to tell them about the reward.
Megan (off-panel): Definitely troubling.
[Ponytail shows Megan another sheet of paper.]
Ponytail: In one experiment, your subjects repeatedly gave electric shocks to a stranger in another room.
Megan: That's a famous psychological-
Ponytail: This was a study of moisturizing creams!
Megan: Yes, we're not sure how they snuck in all that equipment.

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The responses in panels 1, 3, and 4 show that Megan is trying to downplay the issues despite better knowledge. This is probably done to surprise the reader of the dialogue for better dramatic effect. Sebastian -- 05:59, 23 October 2015 (UTC)

In the second panel, Megan makes a good point which Ponytail misses. If the control group had a high incidence of arson, while the experimental group did not (and assuming that proper protocols were followed in assigning subjects to groups), there is a possibility that the drug has the side-effect of suppressing the urge for arson Sysin (talk) 06:45, 23 October 2015 (UTC)

Where is the point? "People where arrested for arson" - "Side effects" - "They where in the control group". That's not really a point for the side-effect of surpressing the urge for arson, is it? 09:01, 23 October 2015 (UTC)
If only people from the control group have been arrested, it is or could be. Sebastian -- 10:58, 23 October 2015 (UTC)
In this case both the control and the test group must be full of arsonists and the question is why did Ponytail let them lose to commit arson in the first place. May bye a double-blind test?Jkotek (talk) 13:29, 23 October 2015 (UTC)
Maybe both groups were arsonists and the thing helps prevent the person from getting arrested somehow. Mulan15262 (talk) 14:50, 24 October 2015 (UTC)
Where were they arrested? Where was the control group? Where is the "where"? That's not really a question to be asking, is it? 22:01, 27 October 2015 (UTC)
Another interpretation of the second panel is that Ponytail went fishing for patterns in the data, and happened to find the apparent cluster of arson arrests. There is no obvious reason why arson arrests would have any bearing on a drug trial. (Of course this depends on the drug, but the experiment in the last panel is about moisturizing cream; since no more specifics are given there is no reason to assume it is a psychologically active substance.) If you look at enough variables about a group of people (be they ever-so carefully randomly selected) you will probably find some "unusual" pattern - some way that they differ from the entire population.
A classic example of this is the observation about Israeli fighter pilots having predominantly girl children. However, when one looks at subsequent births to Israeli pilots, they show the usual gender distribution. The only reason for looking at the gender distribution of children of Israeli fighter pilots was because somebody noticed this pattern in some data set. See "Science of the Discworld" by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. 23:29, 24 October 2015 (UTC)

did Danish cut her hair? -- 11:22, 23 October 2015 (UTC)

I agree, this is more typical of Danish, so either she cut her hair or is wearing it up in some manner. -- 00:48, 25 October 2015 (UTC)

also, the title text could allude to the fact that sociopaths (or successful ones at least) tend to be really adept at getting other people to write off or engage in their behaviours. that is, the IRB, despite the apparent awfulness of the actions of the subjects, on meeting them thought they were pretty cool and people should lay off. -- 11:28, 23 October 2015 (UTC)

Are those "citation needed" of any use? There is already a link to Wikipedia for sociopathy. Also, the invoked reasons ("Is an arsonist defined as a sociopath?", "Is a masochist the same as a sociopath?", "Is there an agreed upon definition of 'truly sociopathic behaviour', and is this it?") are not sound to me. Sociopathy is defined as "antisocial behavior", so are arson and sadism. 11:32, 23 October 2015 (UTC)

I elected to simply remove references to sociopathy. I think the comic uses the phrase "awful" people, and I don't think it is necessary to instill the article with controversy by defining the people as sociopaths or any other term. Simply describing their traits and noting that it is unusual and why should be sufficient. 14:01, 23 October 2015 (UTC)

I realize that this area is for discussing the subject of the comic, but of all the comic strips out there this is the last one I would ever expect to include the "word" snuck. 13:23, 23 October 2015 (UTC)

This area is mainly for discussing the improvement of the article. Unlike Wikipedia, here we also can discuss the subject of the comic. I addressed your comment, because I never had heard the word (no scare quotes) snuck, but immediatly knew it was an alternate past tense of sneak. I added this: Snuck is a dialectal past tense of sneak.[1]. 13:37, 23 October 2015 (UTC)
With respect, I don't think the word "snuck" is uncommon or in any way unique to this comic. I don't think there is any valid need to include a line defining a common verb. If people don't know what the word "snuck" is, dictionary websites are aplenty, but let's not turn this site into one of those ones where every word is a link to a definition. Unless it's jargon or technical or a proper noun that needs explanation, I don't think definitions or links are really needed. 14:01, 23 October 2015 (UTC)
Why use a dictionary when Conan can do it for you?  :-) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmoHSczX8pU (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

This comic could be referencing the growing realization that that the subjects of almost all psychology studies are not representative of the world population at large and of the great variety of humans found in the world. The subjects in psychology experiments are usually psychology students or other undergraduate students. Thus the subjects of these experiments are WIERD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic), these subjects are not close to worldwide normal. See this Scientific American article for more information. Thus this biases the results of psychology experiments in systematic ways, just as having a bunch of sociopaths as subjects would also systematically effect the results. --Benjamin (talk) 15:07, 23 October 2015 (UTC)

Might this comic be related to the increased effect of placebo in medical studies? The "awful people" explanation is one of the ones mentioned in the article: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34572482

Not really 04:16, 24 October 2015 (UTC)

Does antisocial behavior really invalidate non-neuro/psychological drug trials? I don't think personality would change the progression and nature of other diseases. -- 09:29, 24 October 2015 (UTC)

It may be worth noting that in the Milgram experiments, the subjects continued to administer harsher shocks when told to "Please continue," or other similarly anodyne statements, but when they were actually ordered to continue, none did. This was the subject of this week's Radiolab episode, presumably coincidentally. Miamiclay (talk) 03:19, 25 October 2015 (UTC) comic is about selection bias. Megan maybe got the subjects from a narrow area (maybe a mental insitution or a prison), explaining why the subjects acted this way.

World Polio Day Comic

At the top of xkcd.com is a link to Bill Gate's blog http://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/XKCD-Marks-the-Spot which currently contains one of Mr. Munroe's strips. Is this an appropriate subject for this wiki? and if so how?-- 20:35, 24 October 2015 (UTC)

http://i1.theportalwiki.net/img/d/d3/GLaDOS_sp_laser_powered_lift_completion02.wav 23:43, 26 October 2015 (UTC)

(How'd I miss this strip? I think I was busy, that day and the next few.) Certainly not directly related, but recently I've seen a documentary about the effects of video-gaming on people in which a (not-linked) student study to see how many randomly moving dots a person could remember as having been of initially one state or another (shown at the start, before made indistinguishable) after they've been mixed up. The student conducting the research got unexpectedly high results from his group. It turns out he used many of his friends, in particular friends who all played videogames with each other, which it seems gave them the skills (and/or greatly self-selected against those lacking the skills) enabling them all to go on to do far better than the expected average on the test. Interesting, I thought, if not directly connected with the comic. 13:42, 28 October 2015 (UTC)