Maher Explains His Experiments

"Many people free themselves of anxiety by simply becoming blind to those situations in life that might cause emotional conflict," Brendan A. Maher, Chairman of Harvard's Center for Research in Personality, suggested Tuesday in the fourth lecture of the behavioral science series.

Maher, who devoted most of his lecture to a description of his own experiments with conflict situations in children and schizophrenics, attempted to convey a sense of the extraordinary complexity involved in the problems of measurement and interpretation of experimental data.

The first problem involved in his experiments consisted in designing what Maher humorously called "a child's mind-changing apparatus." "We were concerned," he said, "with the processes that take place while a decision is being made."

The experimenters would present a child with the option of making a choice (in this case, between two plastic toys), then give him permission to change his mind. The "mind-changing apparatus" would record the time elapsed between the child's first choice and second choice, or second and third, and so on.

Although the experimenters were worried that the children simply would not react, when the first subject, a six-year-old girl, changed her mind over 110 times, "we sent her home confirmed that our operation was a success."


Children tested divided themselves into two categories: those who simply grabbed a toy and left, casting a curious stare at the adult experimenters; and those who hesitated, changed their minds, and showed some anxiety at the problem of choice presented to them.

In his experiments, Dr. Maher attempted to determine if there were any particular personality traits associated with indecisiveness. He explained yesterday that a behavioral scientist works under very real limitations: "We simply have no idea what's going on in a child's head. Therefore we must speculate, and we are often led astray by our own speculations."

He remarked that the anxiety felt by the indecisive children has much in common with the man who oscillates between buying car A and car B, and finally gets so anxious over the necessity of choice that he rushes out and buys anything simply to be free from the need to make a decision. These people then often deny that they ever felt any indecision at all.

Maher believes that any theory must rise out of well-grounded data; he avoided passing on to the audience any sort of abstract generalizations.

The behavioral scientist, he feels, must avoid the temptation to settle into secure theories that eventually will color his own perception of actual occurrences. Quipped Maher: "theory is cheery, but data is greater.