Copy cat

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A child’s car seat balances atop empty cardboard boxes in a corner of Beecher 310. A cubicle divider barely conceals a computer on the opposite side of the room. The musty-smelling space has no vials or brain charts posted on the walls. Yet it is in rooms like this that Bennett Bertenthal’s cognitive-psychology research team has spent the past three years testing how environment affects the way humans think and behave.

To begin each experiment, graduate student Matthew Longo, AM’04, asks his subject to fill out a survey judging her own capacity for empathy. Then the subject sits before a monitor and watches a computer-generated image of a hand press its index or middle finger down, alternating left and right hands, for about 30 minutes. Longo instructs the subject to press the “1” key with her index finger or the “3” key with her middle finger to indicate whether the computer’s depressed finger is on the left or the right side of the monitor. Later Longo will evaluate if the subject has accurately recorded right or left, or if she merely mimicked the simulated hand’s action. He and other researchers hope to quantify people’s propensity to “unconsciously imitate the behavior they observe” and possibly relate this data to the subject's self-reported ability to empathize with others.

At least 250 people have been tested so far, Longo estimates, using “at least 20 different variants” of the experiment. Last week the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance accepted an article on the tests, which demonstrated that people mimic behavior they observe. The team’s inquiries are not over; they will continue researching the topic “as long as it’s interesting,“ Longo says, and as long as it helps scientists “understand the way people think.”

Meredith Meyer, '06

Photo: Matthew Longo sits at the psych-experiment computer.

July 29, 2005