Rage in the Lab

A regular contributor to PUNCH of light articles and literary criticism, R. G. G. PRICE lives in Sussex and writes for the ATLANTIC on a variety of subjects.

In the Feshbach experiment on the effects of television violence, two groups of students were shown two different films, one of a boxing match and the other of something more neutral. The group that had watched the boxing came out showing less hostility than the one that had not. I have kept the key fact till last: both groups had been “previously angered.” I am not joining in the great debate on how the results should be interpreted. What interests me is the process of angering. If anyone knows how it was done, please leave me in my happy ignorance. There are times when a little guessing cheers the mind.

Probably in the early days of experimental psychology, angering was pretty rough and ready. Some lowgrade menial was told to tread on the subjects or drop soup on them or just jeer. It was something he got landed with in the intervals of raising current by pedaling a fixed bicycle or mending the X-ray tube with bobby pins or making coffee. He wouldn’t have earned any extra pay for it; the job might have been looked on as a reward: “Sorry, Peters, we can’t offer you a raise, but there are twenty-four college girls coming tomorrow for perception experiments, and it’s you we have picked to make them fighting mad.”

In time, upgrading altered the look of scientific manpower. The all-around sorcerer’s apprentice multiplied into hundreds of types of technicians, including infuriators. It would not stop there. Infuriation will have become top-level work by now, entrusted to picked Ph.D.’s, with their own association and journal and ingenious claims for tax concessions. They take ever harder and more complex examinations. For the advanced diploma they have to arouse fury in subjects filled to the brim with tranquilizers.

With the rising standard of statistical precision demanded from experimenters, angering cannot be hit or miss, a matter of casually applied stimuli producing unmeasurable responses. There must be some kind of scale. I wonder what the datum line can be. Human flash points vary widely, and so do reactions to the same provocation. One subject may receive yells of “lousy Commie-lover’ with a sad, sweet smile, while another may foam at the mouth and roll on the floor because he is kept waiting in a shop for his change.

The personality of the infuriator must enter into many experiments more closely than the purist statistician would approve. There are men who can start their companions boiling without actually doing anything at all. To get usable figures, some constant of anger productiveness would have to be calculated for each worker in this field. The smaller labs would not be able to employ full-time people, and it would be important to know the visiting infuriator’s rating.

Only if angering can be performed mechanically will exact repetition of conditions become possible. Eventually the volunteer will be hooked up to an apparatus which will inflict a series of rigorously standardized provocations. Through the headphones there will come the sounds of a nagging wife, a substandard radio comic, an abusive cop, and a games bore. A plastic elbow will dig the subject in the ribs. Measured quantities of staining liquids will be dribbled over his clothes. The seat will give way.

I wonder how anger was maintained at a constant level during the walk from the lab to the movie in the Feshbach experiment? Perhaps the stalls were kept dark and the aisles were filled with piled coats, packages, and dogs on long leads. Or were the subjects angered in their seats? I had been vaguely imagining a long file of volunteers slowly shuffling from infuriator to auditorium, but those at the head of the queue might well have found their anger evaporated and turned into boredom. It all sounds much too full of holes. The only safe procedure would be to have each seat fitted with an individual machine; if that sounds a bit expensive, charge it to the space program.

The irascibility of man responds to a far wider range of stimuli than that of animals, so there must be a need for specialist animal infuriators. I suppose you would get some kind of response by snatching food from guinea pigs, but it would be a pretty elementary, unprofessional approach and no firm basis for a bonus claim. What colors irritate a tortoise? How do drosophilas respond to old Scottish airs played on a saw? What is the most effective way of sneering at bison? For this kind of work the human operator is likely to be needed for some time to come.

The Feshbach experiment was really concerned with evaluating the cathartic possibilities of television violence by testing the theory that being subjected to it might make the viewer a milder and calmer citizen instead of one anxious to improve on the methods of mayhem demonstrated on the screen. The angering was merely preliminary; but there must be areas of research in which angering is central — sedation pharmacology for one. Products cannot be adequately tested without efficient emotion stimulation, and that ought to mean rage as well as fear.

The people who make tranquilizers are obviously well set to make stimulants. These surely must provide not only energy but fury. Pep pills issued to combat troops are intended to make them fierce as well as just brisk. Standardization — and that means controlled angering — is needed to make sure that soldiers are not merely superhumanly active but that they do not lose all sense of tactical possibilities in a whirling, hate-generated red mist.

There is certainly a place in modern life for the mild infuriant as well as the mild sedative. There are restaurants in which no customer gets served if he looks meek; a pill taken before entering would pay off. Mounting trams in European capitals, the gentle, courteous man is at a disadvantage; a spurt of anger might be just what is needed to change him from a pedestrian to a passenger. There would be a steady sale to the henpecked.

But, of course, all this talk of machines and drugs may be right off beam. It’s quite obvious, now that I come to think of it: the volunteers in the Feshbach experiment who had been previously angered before seeing the violent or nonviolent films had been made to sit through— Well, fill in the name of the movie for yourself.