Stressful Dyadic Episode


The centerpiece of the experiments was something Murray called alternatively “stressful disputation,” “dyadic interaction,” “stressful dyadic episode,” “stressful dyadic proceeding,” “dyadic interaction of alienated subjects,” or simply “the Dyad.” Whatever its name, it was a highly refined version of the third degree. Its intent was to catch the student by surprise, to deceive him, bring him to anger, ridicule his beliefs, and brutalize him. As Murray explained in the only article he ever wrote about his experiment:

First, you are told you have a month in which to write a brief exposition of your personal philosophy of life, an affirmation of the major guiding principles in accord with which you live or hope to live.

Second, when you return to the Annex with your finished composition, you are informed that in a day or two you and a talented young lawyer will be asked to debate the respective merits of your two philosophies.

When the subject arrived for the debate, he was escorted into a “brilliantly lighted room” and seated in front of a one-way mirror. A motion picture camera recorded his every move and facial expression through a hole in the wall. Electrodes leading to machines that recorded his heart and respitory rates were attached to his body. Then the debate began. But the students were tricked. Contrary to what Murray claimed in his article, Murray had lied to the students. He did not tell them they would debate a talented young lawyer. Rather, as Murray explained in an unpublished progress report, each student was led to expect he would confront “another undergraduate student like himself.” So when they were confronted with what Murray called “a law school student… our trained accomplice,” they were caught completely by surprise and not prepared for what followed. This “well-prepared ‘stooge’,” as Murray’s biographer, Forrest Robinson, calls the law student, was talented indeed, and carefully coached to launch an aggressive attack on his younger victim, for the purpose of upsetting him as much as possible.

Robinson describes what happened next:

As instructed, the unwitting subject attempted to represent and to defend his personal philosophy of life. Invariably, he was frustrated, and finally brought to expressions of real anger, by the withering assault of his older, more sophisticated opponent… while fluctuations in the subject’s pulse and respiration were measured on a cardiotachometer.

Not surprisingly, most participants found this highly unpleasant, even traumatic, as the data sets record. “We were led into the room with bright lights, very bright,” one of them, code-named “Cringle,” recalled afterward.

I could see shadowy activities going on behind the one-way glass. …[Dr. G]… started fastening things on me. [I] had a sensation somewhat akin to someone being strapped on the electric chair with these electrodes… I really started getting hit real hard… Wham, wham, wham! And me getting hotter and more irritated and my heart beat going up… and sweating terribly… there I was under the lights and with movie camera and all this experimentation equipment on me… It was sort of an unpleasant experience.

“Right away,” said another, code-named “Trump,” describing his experience afterward, “I didn’t like [the interrogator].”

[Dr. G]… came waltzing over and he put on those electrodes but in that process, while he was doing that, kind of whistling, I was looking over the room, and right away I didn’t like the room. I didn’t like the way the glass was in front of me through which I couldn’t see, but I was being watched and right away that puts one in a kind of unnatural situation and I noted the big white lights and again that heightens the unnatural effect. There was something peculiar about the set-up to, it was supposed to look homey or look natural, two chairs and a little table, but again that struck me as unnatural before the big piece of glass and the lights. And then [Mr. R]… who was bubbling over, dancing around, started to talk to me about he liked my suit… the buzzer would ring or something like that, we were supposed to begin… he was being sarcastic pretty much of a wise guy… And the first thing that entered my mind was to get up and ask him outside immediately… but that was out of the question, because of the electrodes and the movie and all that… I kind of sat there and began to fume and then he went on and he got my goat and I couldn’t think of what to say… And then they came along and they took my electrodes off.

One subject, “Hinge,” thought he was “being attacked.” Another, “Naisfield,” complained: “The lights were very bright… Then the things were put on my legs and whatnot and on the arm… I didn’t like the feel of the sticky stuff that was on there being sort of uncomfortable.”

Although the “stressful dyadic proceeding” served as the centerpiece of Murray’s experiment (taking place during the winter of 1960), it was merely one among scores of different tests the students took in order to allow Murray and his associates to acquire, as Murray wrote, “the most accurate, significant, and complete knowledge and understanding of a single psychological event that is obtainable.”

Before the dyadic confrontation took place, Murray and his colleagues interviewed the students in depth about their hopes and aspirations. During this same period the subjects were required to write not only essays explaining their philosophies of life but also autobiographies, in which they were told to answer specific, intimate questions on a range of subjects from thumb-sucking and toilet training to masturbation and erotic fantasies. And they faced a battery of tests that included, among others, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), a Rorschach test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the California Psychological Inventory, a “fantasy inventory,” a psychological-types inventory, the Maudalay Personality Inventory, an “inventory of self-description,” a “temperament questionnaire,” a “time-metaphor test,” a “basic disposition test,” a “range of experience inventory,” a “philosophical outlook test,” a food-preference inventory, analyses of their literary tastes and moral precepts, an “odor association test,” a “word association test,” an argument-completion test, a Wyatt finger-painting test, a projective-drawings test, and a “Resenzweig picture frustration test.” The results were then analyzed by researchers, who plotted them in numerous ways in an effort to develop a psychological portrait of each personality in all its dimensions.

Only after most of this data had been collected did researchers administer the stressful dyadic confrontation. Following this session, each student was called back for several “recall” interviews and sometimes asked to comment on the movie of himself being reduced to impotent anger by the interrogator. During these replays, Murray wrote, “you will see yourself making numerous grimaces and gestures” and “uttering incongruent, disjunctive, and unfinished sentences.”

In the last year of the experiment, Murray made the students available to his graduate student assistants, to serve as guinea pigs for their own research projects. By graduation, as Keniston summarized the process, “each student had spent approximately two hundred hours in the research, and had provided hundreds of pages of information about himself, his beliefs, his past life, his family, his college life and development, his fantasies, his hopes and dreams.