How to conduct a psychological experiment on your family

Children are not good for many things. You don’t, for example, want to take a child on a long plane trip. Or have them with you when something disastrous happens. My oldest son has a habit of blocking his ears and closing his eyes at the approach of a bad thing. At least it’s more sophisticated than my mother, who actually has been known to duck when something untoward occurs.

‘Mum,’ I say to her, ‘I heard a strange noise outside.’ – She ducks, her hands over her ears.

‘The kettle’s broken.’ – Duck. It’s not helpful.

But children are wonderful candidates for psychological experiments. I’m not suggesting you get them, Milgram-style, to administer shocks to unsuspecting people – god, can you imagine! Nobody would emerge unharmed – but you can set up subtle changes that reveal a lot about the psyche.

Like this experiment that I devised for the five-year-old last night. I’d been given a box of Elephant chocolates as a gift and, partly as bribe (‘first eat the avocado’), partly as kind-hearted motherly deed, I sometimes give them one after supper.

The youngest one came toddling along to ask for his chocolate.

‘Okay,’ I told him. ‘You ate your avocado?’

‘It was disgusting.’

‘Very good. But listen,’ I said to him in flash of brilliance, to be modest for a moment, ‘I’ve had an idea. Tell me what you think? You can get an Elephant chocolate – ’ joshie with chocolate


‘But your brother gets two.’


‘Alright, then you both get none. Either you get one and your brother gets two, or you both get none.’

‘Okay. Fine. We both get none.’

And that’s it in a nutshell, the problem with human beings, or at least one essential problem.

Let me lastly add that if you are planning a psychological experiment with family members – and I do believe this is an area worth developing (you might wish to choose from this list of 10 famous experiments that you could never do today*)  – you have to plan for a lengthy post-experiment time. I had to endure a very voluble five-year-old for a lengthy period of time**. In fact, my only response was to put my hands over my ears and duck.


*I’m rather taken with making half the family prisoners, the other half prison guards.

** Despite rescinding my earlier offer, and giving them each one chocolate.