My kid regularly participates in psychological studies. There are quite a few universities in my area that have grad programs in child development; they’re always looking for young volunteers to follow whatever procedures the budding psychologists have in mind.

Usually these are questions of categorization, or development of mental constructs — differing objects are offered and taxonomical schemata are offered; the whole process is videotaped, and the results written up. And the kid gets a toy — a stuffed animal from one lab, a plastic frisbee, ball or bucket from another — which is of course what makes it appealing to her.

This has been going on for three years or so. It’s fun, and a diversion from our usual routine.

Last month we went in for another such study. The young woman who was conducting the interview explained to me that my daughter would be asked questions about her religious beliefs (among other subjects) in the first half of the interview, and asked to make inferences about other children (pictures of whom were shown on a computer screen) based on statements from the interviewer.

Okay. But since this was going to touch on a possibly complicated topic, I thought I should know more about what went on. I asked for a copy of the interview video.

Which they finally sent me.


Here’s an edited transcript.

Interviewer: I’m going to ask some questions about you, and then I’ll show you some pictures of other kids, and ask you questions about them. OK?

Daughter: Yes.

Interviewer asks questions about favorite colors, favorite desserts, favorite fruits, etc. Kid answers clearly and easily.

I: What is your favorite song?

D: I have a lot of favorite songs.

I: What’s one that you like?

D: Flying Vee (They Might Be Giants).

I: Do you or do you not think that brushing your teeth every day keeps them healthy?

D: I think it does. (This was followed by a long digression on flouride toothpaste and her reactions to it)

I: Do you or do you not think that sleeping on a pillow is comfortable?

D: I think that sleeping on a pillow is comfortable.

I: Do you or do you not think that there is only one god?

(long pause)

D: I don’t really believe in god.

I: Okay. And do you or do you not think that god hears the songs people sing to him?

Me, listening to the audio recording: ZOMG! WTF! AAARGH!

(long pause)

D: I don’t really know that question. Well, a question that I was hoping you’d ask would be ‘Do you like dinosaurs?’ and I would say ‘Yes!’ to that.

I: Well, we don’t have that question in this game. I’m sorry. Would you like me to say that question that I asked one more time?

D: Okay.

I: Do you or do you not think that god hears the songs people sing to him?

D: He might.

I: What if you just had to say yes or no?

D (sounding much more bored than she was a minute previously): Yes.

Interviewer then changes the subject to gift-giving, sleeping positions and the like. Kid answers easily.

I: And do you or do you not celebrate god with other people?

D: I don’t celebrate god.

I: And do you or do you not tell other people that there is only one god?

D: I don’t.

And they moved on to the second phase of the interview.

Well, that particular turd sat in my inbox for a while, as I thought about how I was going to respond. Here’s an edited version of the email I sent to the principal “investigators.”

I have finally had a chance to review the video of my daughter’s participation (thanks very much for sending it along), and I have some concerns both about the content and the form of the interview.

My daughter is (name redacted), and we were last there on (date redacted). I assume you will be able to refer to the video in responding to my comments.

A question like, “Do you or do you not think that there is only one god?” is problematic. Why not “Do you or do you not think that there is no such thing as ‘God’?” or “Do you or do you not think that there are exactly twenty-seven gods?” The structure of the question is, to coin a neologism, theonormative.

But that was resolved by (daughter’s) answer. She said “I don’t really believe in god.” All would have been okay at that point.

But your follow-up question was predicated on a particular answer to the “only one god” question!

After she said, “I don’t really believe in god,” the very next question was, “Do you or do you not think that god hears the songs that people sing to him?”

Do you see the problem?

The connotations of this question are troubling on several levels.

The first is simply that the interviewer was working from a prepared script with an inadequate heuristic structure. The failure to include an option for “subject doesn’t believe in god” is indicative of poor preparation. Let’s pretend the question was about hot dogs, okay? If the question “Do you like to eat hot dogs?” is answered “no,” the follow-up question should not be, “What kind of mustard do you like on your hot dogs?”

The second is the issue of theonormativity again. By working from a script that fails to accommodate the “do not believe” option, the study designer and/or interviewer have betrayed their own religious biases — in a way that is guaranteed to influence the outcome of the study.

Third is that responding formulaically very clearly conveyed the impression of not actually paying attention to what the subject (my daughter) actually said. Her response is one of bafflement and incomprehension: “I don’t really know that question,” and her subsequent remarks betray her discomfort and confusion — she digresses about dinosaurs. A good interviewer pays attention to her subject. If you and I were having a conversation and I behaved that way, you’d think I was pretty rude.

Moving on, I was shocked to see that (knowing that she’d already said she “didn’t really believe in god,” and having observed her discomfort with being asked a question that was founded on a contradictory premise) the interviewer asked the same question again.

“Do you or do you not think that god hears the songs that people sing to him?”

In other words, the interviewer forced an answer from her — and sure enough, she says, with obvious reluctance, “he might.” At which the interviewer followed by specifically requesting a yes or no answer. Watching the video it is obvious from the dialogue what answer the interviewer desires; children will usually try to please grownups, and my daughter is no exception. The fact of returning to the “hears the songs” question twice, and manipulating the dialogue to get a specific answer, effectively negates (daughter’s) previous statement of unbelief.

Let’s imagine the tables are turned.

A child raised in a Christian environment is interviewed. The interviewer says, “do you or do you not believe that there is no god?”

The child replies, “I believe in God.”

The interviewer responds by saying, “Okay. Since there is no god, do you think it matters if you pray?”

Now, do you see the problem?

My own religious beliefs are irrelevant to this; I do not generally discuss my atheism with my daughter, although she’s obviously absorbed more about it than I have deliberately conveyed. My concerns have to do with the experimenter’s manipulation of a juvenile subject, and with the fact that the information gained from this interview will presumably be part of a “scientific” study.

While I am by profession a musician and a music teacher, I was raised by academic psychologists. I have been participating in psych studies since I was an infant, and I’m glad my daughter has a chance to do the same. But what this video shows is not evidence of thoughtful experimental design, but a recipe for confirmation bias. I’m not sure whether this is just sloppy interviewing technique (bad) or poor experimental design (worse). I hope to the bottom of my heart that it wasn’t theonormative proselytizing disguised as a psych study, which would be egregious academic misconduct.

I look forward to your response.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders

So far, no response.

31 May 2011, 11:24am
by Deborah S

Very interesting experience. We too live near universities with child dev psych depts and have participated in a number of studies with one or another kid.
I hope you get a satisfactory response or at least sufficient attention to scare them into appropriate IRB conformance…

Warren, actually. I’m going to give them a chance to respond before I start pushing further. The people running this study are grad students; I would like to get this straightened out before they become professionals….but I’m ready to wait a few weeks to see how they respond. Expect updates in the fullness of time.

29 May 2011, 10:44am
by Jane Henderson

Stefan–You should be much more aggressive about this. Letters to the Editor, complaints to the APA, possibly the hiring of lawyers, etc. This is extremely bad and should be nipped in the bud pronto. Who knows where they might try to use the so-called “results” of this so-called “research”. The supposed professionals who would structure such an interview in this way should be called out by their peers at the very least.


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