Joe Doakes and the O.R.I.: Recognizing somebody you know quite well may seem like a cinch, but psychologists still can’t figure out how in the world you do it

August 29, 1965

by Dan Sellard of The Register-Guard

When you walk down the street and see good old Joe Doakes coming, you just know it’s old Joe. You’re sure.

But what did you do to recognize him? Ears, clothes, big nose, small eyes–what process did you use? Did you eliminate certain factors to come to a conclusion?

Only if you made a mistake, or if you can’t put the name on the man (I’ve got it right on the tip of my tongue) do you think a little about what complex thing it is to recognize a person.

This recognition process is something Leonard Rorer would like to know more about.

“It’s one of the most complex of all decisions–this recognizing a person–yet we do it nearly all the time with the greatest of ease.”

This kind of problem typifies hundreds that are of great interest to Rorer and the half-dozen other professional psychologists who busy themselves in thought at Oregon Research Institute, a unique outfit housed in what used to be the Unitarian Church at the corner of 11th Avenue and Ferry Street in Eugene.

Here, brainy people, working in the proper atmosphere, go quietly about their task of finding out what makes us tick.

Inside the bright friendly place (although it looks gloomy from the outside), 28 persons are loosely controlled by Paul Hoffman, lean, crew cut and calm, and who founded the institute some years ago when he grew weary of the restrictions of academic life at the University of Oregon.

ORI is a non-profit organization devoted primarily to basic research in the behavioral sciences–the study of human endeavor; what people do; how they think; see and react, and why.

The institute’s high reputation is evidenced by the grants ORI has received from the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation. It is pride fully independent.

“Our only regulation is what we give ourselves,” Hoffman says.

All members of the professional staff are doctors of philosophy and they seem to be completely free to sail off on their own courses, thinking and putting their abstract findings into a form which contributes to the world’s fact file.

Brains and not noisy machines are at work here. ORI’s quiet is only emphasized by the clack of typewriters and the sometimes burst of laughter or gay conversation coming from one of the small offices.

Research here takes two forms: the scientifically-designed, controlled experiment; and the abstract thinking–the reflecting and problem-solving of scientists at work trying to make like more understood, and hence more meaningful.

There is much lacking in our knowledge of the human brain, the whys and how’s of making judgments, the everyday and once-in-a-while decisions.

Some of the research at ORI is designed for testing tests. These are the tests that are given people who apply for jobs, or for entrance into college.

There is a discontent with testing in the psychological field today, Rorer says.

There are several problem areas: testing hasn’t developed to the point he’d like; some people believe too much in testing, and others don’t believe in it enough.

“Tests can be helpful, and they should be used,” he says, referring to such tests as personality, intelligence, and aptitude, “but they are often misused. This misuse comes from the demands of the consumer, who reads into the results what he wants and thus negates the whole effort.”

These tests, Rorer believes, should be ranked in about the same importance as the tests a physician gives his patient.

“The doctor has tests made on urine, and blood, and he may have an X-ray made, an electrocardiograph taken and so on.

“Then, with all this in hand, he makes a judgment–the diagnosis, which actually is a coupling of evidence with his own professional skill.”

This is the way that Rorer believes an employer or a college board should use the tests available.

Rorer and an ORI colleague, Lewis R. Goldberg, are also interested in why people cheat when they take tests.

Even when there is no reward or punishment involved, test-takers fib in their answers. This is a proven fact, and it happens in a high percentage of cases.

The why of it all comes out cloaked in such terms as “social desirability” and “alter ego.” This means that people lie to themselves when they fake an answer on a test–they lie to themselves then in just about the same way they do all the time.

Goldberg explains that “we all think we’re greater than we are–well, most of us do.

“We look at ourselves as more handsome, or prettier, slimmer or huskier, more perceptive, more intelligent, more sexy, and so on than we truly are.

“And so, in answering a test on personality, for instance, we are prone to answer the question in a way to ‘live up’ to this image we have built of ourselves.”

In fact, Goldberg says, much of our motivation is in this “image building.”

He cited the immense popularity of the movies in the James Bond series. Bond is the man that women wish their husbands were, and the man that the husbands wish they were. He’s a little ‘more’ of everything that’s desirable.

This identification with the Ian Fleming hero, who among other things makes all female heads turn when he clicks his hard heels across the hotel lobby, goes on when the movie is over.

“Why, hick, I am James Bond,” Goldberg laughed, his bald head gleaming.

All this is not trivia. It is of great concern to those who want to know more about human behavior.

“When people react to their image and not to their real selves, then curious patterns come out. Sometimes, they get a little confused,” Goldberg explained.

This image-creation accounts for some women insisting on dressing younger than they should, some men thinking they’re still appealing to young women when they are too old, and many other departures from normal behavior.

Why people do this is a subject for considerable research, and how to detect it is still more pasture land for investigation to those at ORI.

From a part of the research is evolving a test which can’t be faked. Instead of asking a question like, “Do I think I’m shy,” the test may have a symbol which is known to the tester (but not to the subject) to represent the same thing. This can’t be faked.

Another factor in testing is that many people “just know they can do things which of course they can’t,” Rorer says. “They’ll grade themselves up and it’s the tester’s job to prevent them.”

But he reiterates that there is a proper place for testing–and that the testing technique is improving.

“The employer who says he can size up a person in ‘just five minutes’ or the teacher who says she can tell a ‘bright student’ in a few minutes is probably very, very wrong.”

So far, intelligence tests are the best, Rorer thinks. “It isn’t that they can predict success, as some think but, rather that they can predict failure pretty well.”

The college entrance examination today can “pretty well weed out those who won’t make it through school,” he says.

The over-reliance on statistics is another concern at ORI.

Rorer cites as an example the study made not so long ago of a mutual fund stock investment plan. The funds were invested by experts who made large use of stock market analysis.

“The test project proved in 90 per cent of the cases that if the same money had been invested on a random-selected basis by a non-expert, it would have earned more money.”

But statistics are invaluable to the psychological researcher, and an important “member of the staff” is a computer which is borrowed from the university.

ORI’s programmers, Larry Ewing and Terry Liittschwager, are looking forward to the day when they can have their own computer, but meanwhile they get along by plugging in the University’s 1620 model with a larger one on the University of California at Los Angeles campus.

“We make this one computer talk with the other,” explains Liittschwager in a nice bit of understatement.

The staff members insist on putting or keeping the computer in its place.

“I am not one who says we couldn’t get along without the computer,” says Goldberg, “but it does speed things along and take some of the labor out of research.”

Goldberg by the way, reads so many periodicals and journals in his field that he has them catalogued on computer cards. They are grouped within narrowly defined subject areas, then coded, so he can “push a button” to get what he wants from the shelf.

The ORI staffers do their share of writing too, since printing pieces in professional journals is an important way of communicating among scientists. The ORI people have published about 100 such articles since 1960.

While the institute is intended primarily for basic research, it does once in a while take on an applied research project. (Basic research is just learning about something; applied research is putting that knowledge to work in a direct, practical manner.)

But the staff much prefers to remain in the thinking man’s world of basic research. When their research points to a possibility of direct application, ORI would much rather talk someone else into using its research in a directed manner.

ORI will not, for instance, work on the mentally disturbed, give marriage counseling, or probe into any one person’s problems. Some of these cases do wander in off the street and ORI is listed under “psychologists” in the yellow pages, but the receptionist tenderly steers the cases to some other place.

What will happen in that someday land when psychologists know so much about people that they (the psychologists) can control them?

Goldberg frowns profoundly as he ponders this–as if it has been bothering him.

“Is it a dangerous possibility? No, I believe, though, that it will be a better world when we come to the point that we can guide people into the best jobs for them, counsel youngsters into better marriage situations, halt suicides and so on.”

Such knowledge could also give society more control over itself, Goldberg said. Take the buildup of conditions leading to a riot. (The reporter, and not Goldberg, created the situation.)

If enough were known about behavior, Goldberg said, a policeman could simply fence the leaders of the trouble-makers off from the crowd, and trouble would never start.

(This is presently police science, but the difficulty is in finding the trouble-makers before they start the trouble and then doing the right thing.)

“I feel I am definitely making a contribution to knowledge about people and that this knowledge is important to all of us,” said Rorer.

Rorer is 32 and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. His age is typical of the staff researchers. Hoffman at 42 is the old man of the bunch.

Paul Slovic is interested in risk-taking. Under what circumstances does a person take a chance? Why do some people enjoy taking a chance more than playing it the safe way?

Slovic invented a game that could be played by children of almost all ages. The object was to find the relation of risk-taking to age and sex differences.

The game apparatus was a panel of ten big switches. The child could pull any switch and be rewarded by a handful of candy. He then could go on and pull a different switch and get some more candy.

BUT, one of the ten switches was a disaster switch, and if the child pulled it he would lose all the candy he had won. He knew this when he started playing the game.

The child was told he could play the game as long as he wished, until he pulled the wrong switch.

ORI built an attractive booth at the 1964 Lane County Fair and set up shop. Some 2,500 children of all ages played the game.

One result was what almost anyone would assume: boys take risks more than girls and so they went away losers more often than girls.

Less predictable was the effect of age; the finding was that the older the child, the more adventuresome he becomes, and this applies to both sexes, although females stay more timid than males.

In addition to this finding, Slovic has a wealth of other data from the game experiment. These data are assembled into computer form and can be used many ways.

He believes that the same 10-switch game could be employed to find out if the same results would be gained if there was a comparison of positive (reward) payoff to negative (punishment) payoff. In the 1964 game, there was no punishment except the loss of the candy. But what would happen if one of the switches gave the player an electric jolt?

This would be analogous, Hoffman told a meeting of state institutional representatives recently, to the situation faced by many children in “unfortunate environments.” They are accustomed to choosing between alternatives and learn not to expect so much the reward but to avoid pain of some kind.

Man’s behavior has always been perplexing because he is a complex creature. There is much myth bound up with what we think we know about him. At ORI, the goal is less myth and more fact.

Hoffman and his colleagues are right now embarking on a project which will take at least two years just to prepare.

The two year term is timed to coincide with the development of a brand new computer–one capable of doing many more things than are possible now.

What Hoffman wants to do is to “create” some “brand new organisms.” These will be simulated humans, many of them simple, some complex.

Then at the other end of the computer, he would create a set of circumstances–an environment.

Next, in the many combinations possible because of the computer, he would place the “organism” in the “environment,” give him this or that stimulus and see how “he” would act. These, of course, would be sets of actions and reactions encountered by real people in real life, but controlled and controllable.

A science-fiction writer would be sorely tempted to link this up with another project going on in the field of biological science –the manufacture of a human cell.

If biology can build a man, and psychology can give man perfect behavior, a lot of us are surely going to become inferior. Especially if the new “man” turns out like James Bond.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1965, The Register-Guard, www.registerguard.com.