How Psychotechnology Works

Stanislavs Bardins of Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-University demonstrates the prototype of a video camera controlled by the eyes in Hanover, Germany. The camera could be used in application fields of psychology and market research.
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Why do we do the things we do? It's a question psychologists have been asking for centuries. For the most part, the connection between the body and the mind has remained a mystery to us. How we perceive the world and learn new things still fascinates and confounds us. Are we born with certain qualities, or are we the product of our experiences and upbringing? How do we form an idea, gather information and learn to adapt?

Since there's no simple way to see what goes on in our minds, scientists use one of the major branches of psychology to attempt to make sense of it: theoretical psychology. Just like theoretical physics, this type of psychology allows us to hypothesize about something we can't quite visualize. That, of course, doesn't stop people from arguing about each other's ideas, but at least theoretical psychology tries to move things forward.


­When scientists want to see actual numbers and data that back up those ideas and principles, however, they turn to applied psychology. Because we can't conduct psychological tests or studies on ourselves, we can perform tests on individuals or groups in order to make sense of our actions and understand the processes of the mind. Psychological testing gives us tangible data, or psychometrics, to work with, helping us to grasp the more intangible aspects of the psyche. Its uses are broad: People use psychological testing in areas like education, the workplace, counseling and health.

Psychologists look to study the behavior of people in certain situations in the hopes of understanding, predicting and even controlling human thought processes and emotions. To do so, they use a wide range of tools, commonly known as psychotechnology, to reach various conclusions regarding the mind. What are these tools? What specifically are they used for? Are there any negative aspects or misuses of such technology? To learn how psychologists dive into our minds, read on.


Psychotechnology in Practice

Clinical psychologist Albert Carlin, co-creator of cyber therapy, an approach to treating phobias through virtual reality, posing over a virtual screen peppered with spiders in the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory.
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Because it's such a loose term, psychotechnology encompasses a broad spectrum of tools. Technology doesn't imply just computers and fancy gadgets; some of the most important factors psychologists can apply to subjects are the straightforward guidelines of tests and the data one receives from those tests.

Indeed, some of the simplest technologies have led to the more important discoveries in psychological thinking. One of the most famous examples of applied psychology occurred when Russian research physiologist Ivan Pavlov was studying digestion in animals, particularly dogs. During the early 1900s, Pavlov was researching gastric reflexes -- the secretion of gastric juices upon eating food -- in canines. He was able to do this by surgically implanting small pouches into the laboratory dog's stomachs, which would collect the juices while keeping food from contaminating any samples.


Before going through with any tests, however, Pavlov was confronted with a slight nuisance. The dogs, whether or not there was food in the room, would start salivating; all it took was an assistant to walk into the room, and the samples in the dog's pouch would be corrupted.

Pavlov's main area of study was the physical nature of reflexes, and he reportedly detested the entire field of psychology, firing employees for using any psychological language. But he couldn't ignore this interesting reflex. He decided to put the dogs in a room by themselves, keeping human presence out of the way so as not to signal the possibility of food. After a buzzer sounded, however, food was dropped through a chute into a dish, somewhere between five and 35 seconds later. At first, the dogs showed a normal reflex, pricking their ears at the sound of the buzzer. But after just a few of these tests, the buzzer would trigger a dog's urge to salivate, whether or not food had arrived. While a dog salivating at the presence of food in its mouth is what Pavlov called an "unconditioned response" -- a natural reflex built into an animal's psyche -- his experiment was a "conditioned response." A trigger as simple as a buzzer highlighted the process of learning behavior, which were "a long chain of conditioned reflexes" built into the mind over time.

One of the most commonly known forms of psychotechnology is the standardized test. Most people know about intelligence quotient, or IQ, tests, which give theoretical scores that measure a person's memory and language, spatial and mathematical abilities. High school students looking to get accepted into a university are most likely familiar with the SAT, or the Standard Aptitude Test. While these tests are typically used by educational institutions to gather data on intelligence and compare scores, business and industry organizations often use standardized testing to survey employees or analyze performance.

Of course, electronics and gadgets still have their place in psychological testing. For example, psychiatric professors at Oxford University used cell phones and text messaging to study and help patients with bipolar disorder. Again, the professors devised a simple method for monitoring patient's moods -- staff members at the mental health center sent text messages once a week to patients, asking them to respond with a report on how they're feeling. If someone is experiencing difficulties, according to the staff, text messaging notifies the staff quicker and reduces the anxiety of planning appointments [source: Grohol]. Video games and virtual reality are also an important part of psychotechnology -- combat games that simulate battle conditions help soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and let psychologists record important reactions.

There are several practical uses of psychotechnology, but when does it present problems? To read about the potential misuses of psychotechnology, see the next page.


Controversial Uses of Psychotechnology

A volunteer is prepared for tests in the laboratory for psycho-physiological research at the Shikhany research center near the town of Saratov, Russia.
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If you've ever seen Stanley Kubrick's controversial film adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel, "A Clockwork Orange," you might have a negative impression of psychotechnology. In both the novel and the film, a young teenager named Alex spends his time hanging out with his "droogs" -- slang for friends -- and committing atrocious acts of "ultraviolence." Alex and his droogs have a general disregard for law, order and authority, but one night, in the middle of a robbery, Alex kills a woman and is arrested. He is sent to jail for 14 years, but after completing a just two years of his sentence, Alex hears of a rehabilitation program, called the "Ludovico Technique," that will cure him of any urge to commit crime. Alex agrees, unaware of the horrifying, drug-induced treatment he'll have to undergo. Staff members at the prison affix a contraption to his head, keeping his eyes open and forcing him to watch horrifying images. The drugs he's been forced to take make him sick while watching these films, essentially conditioning him to retch at the possibility of violence.

Burgess and Kubrick were creating an imaginary, dystopian world to offer social satire, but is there anything like this in real life? Although most current societies haven't descended into authoritarian chaos, most examples of psychological testing eventually come with their share of controversy.


One of the most recent examples of fear and skepticism comes from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its interest in the Russian-based Psychotechnology Research Institute, located in the country's capital, Moscow. The institute developed an anti-terrorism technology called Semantic Stimuli Response Measurements Technology, or SSRM Tek.

According to a Wired magazine article, the software is a simple computer game that flashes quick, essentially unnoticeable subliminal images across the screen -- pictures of Osama bin Laden or the World Trade Center, for instance. A person taking the test presses a button in response to the images, without taking the time to think about what he or she is seeing. According to the institute, the test is able to detect a subtle difference between a terrorist's involuntary response and that of an innocent person's. The technology has been marketed as a useful system in airports, where flyers would take the test at checkpoints. Those registering a suspicious response would have to undergo extra checks.

Some argue, though, that no electronic technology can correctly pick terrorists and identify other complex traits and behaviors in humans; according to neuroscientist Geoff Schoenbaum, modern psychology is "still working at the level of how rats learn that light predicts food," the same concept physiologist Ivan Pavlov worked on more than a century ago with dogs. Many worry that any errors in these kinds of psychological tests could lead to mistaken accusations, something the scientific community and proponents of psychotechnology would like to avoid.

For lots more information on the mind and its state, see the next page.


Lots More Information

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  • French, Andrew. "Patients text messages win award." Oxford Mail. July 7, 2008.
  • Grohol, John. "Text messaging for bipolar disorder." July 9, 2008.
  • Hunt, Morton. The Story of Psychology. New York: Anchor Books, 2007.
  • Jardin, Xeni. "Virtual reality therapy for combat stress." Aug. 19, 2005.
  • ­Weinberger, Sharon. "The weird Russian mind-control research behind a DHS contract." Wired. Sept. 20, 2007.