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 any kind of treatment. This suggests that Megan's selection process is heavily biased toward arsonists, for some reason.

The third panel alludes to the prisoner's dilemma, which is a long study example of game theory in which two participants are forced to choose between protecting and betraying the other. Each will be rewarded for betraying the other, but the best outcome for both is achieved if neither of them does. This is often used as an example of a situation where each party narrowly pursuing their self-interest will lead to a sub-optimal outcome. Megan's subjects, however, overwhelmingly choose to betray their partners, before being told of any reward. This suggests that betraying their partners is a goal they'll seek for it's own sake.

The last panel references the Milgram experiment, which was designed to test compliance with authority. In the experiment, subjects were instructed by experimenters to administer electric shocks to a third party. While the shocks were fake, the subjects didn't know this, and the victims were instructed to feign pain and beg for it to stop. The experimenters insisted that the subjects continue administering shocks, and many subjects did so, despite their misgivings, simply because they were ordered to.

Ponytail appears to be describing a similar experiment, until she reveals that the actual study had nothing to do with the shocks, and the subjects apparently smuggled in equipment, with the express purpose of administering real electric shocks to (presumably unwilling) people in another room.

In each of these cases, the subjects seem to have some some very troubling personal and psychological traits. While a given study might include one or two people with such traits, just by chance, it appears that all, or nearly all, of the subjects in Megan's study possess a disturbing level of malice, and a lack of both empathy and fear of consequences.

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 the IRB, despite their professional and ethical commitment to safe studies, are so appalled by the people in this study that they're no longer concerned with their safety.


[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)