2538: Snack

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Although grad students, suddenly reminded that food exists, tend to just grab and devour both without further discussion.
Title text: Although grad students, suddenly reminded that food exists, tend to just grab and devour both without further discussion.


Many psychological studies involve participants being asked to make decisions under varying conditions, to determine how those conditions influence decision making. A common example is to give subjects a choice between eating a healthy snack (such as an apple) or a tasty snack (such as a cookie), which may be used as a simple proxy for whether they're prioritizing long-term health or short-term gratification. In most cases they are not made aware of the nature of the experiment, as knowing the premise of the study is liable to influence their behavior and alter the results. Instead subjects may deliberately be given a false impression of the purpose of the study, or they may be offered a choice under conditions where they're not aware that they're part of an experiment at all.

Examples of experiments like this are the Stanford marshmallow experiment and this study.

This sort of psychological study is most commonly done by universities, which means that using university students as subjects is generally the most convenient option. This means both that psychological studies tend to be heavily skewed towards the demographics of college students, and that university students have a pretty good chance of being invited to participate in a study at some point.

The joke in this strip is based on the premise that psychology majors are sufficiently aware of such studies that it would make them suspicious of any circumstances which could be part of a study. If they've studied (or even conducted) such experiments, anything that reminded them of such a study could cause them to become suspicious. In Cueball's case this is exaggerated into outright paranoia, and Ponytail is apparently playing on that to prank him, offering options that could easily be part of such an experiment just to spook him into suspicion.

Studies done on humans are subject to important ethical controls, particularly if the subjects are not fully informed of the study's purpose. "IRB" stands for Institutional Review Board, which is a committee (for example, at a university) which must approve such research to ensure that there's no significant risk of doing harm to the subjects of the study.

The title text jokes that graduate students have so much work to do that they are liable to forget to eat entirely and stereotypically too impoverished to afford adequate amounts of food; when presented with an offer of free food, they don't ponder the implications or potential ulterior motives; they just eat it quickly and get back to work.


[Ponytail, holding a cookie up in one hand and an apple up in the other, addresses an alarmed Cueball. His alarm is shown by seven lines radiating away from his head, and he also holds his arms stretched out.]
Ponytail: Hey, do you want a cookie? Or an apple?
Cueball: Who are you!? Did the IRB approve this!? Is everyone here an actor!?
[Caption beneath the panel:]
The best prank you can play on psych majors is just to offer them a snack.

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IRB is Institutional Review Board. IRB approval is needed for biomedical research involving human subjects. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/institutional-review-boards-frequently-asked-questions 20:51, 5 November 2021 (UTC)

I was wondering what the International Rugby Board had to do with the price of fish. Arachrah (talk) 22:26, 5 November 2021 (UTC)

I don't know who changed the bot's name to "Apple Cookie," but now I really want to know what that would taste like... -mezimm 20:52, 5 November 2021 (UTC)

Simply Google it (or possibly your favourite alternate of Bing, DuckDuckGo, AskJeeves, AltaVista, Yahoo, whatever else is actually around and hasn't been fatally out-Googled). One of the first things I got just now suggests a 20 mins bake using Brown sugar, apple, egg, baking soda, all purpose flour... but there are several others.
(I wasn't the Bot-changer, I must add, but I too now want some sort of apple biscuity-snack. And I only have some of the above ingredients at hand.) 21:41, 5 November 2021 (UTC)
Personally I'm completely OK with googling something on DuckDuckGo. I'm also ok with using escalators which are not from Otis, keeping tea in thermos not from Thermos, playing frisbee not from Wham-O, photoshoping images with Gimp, fasten clothes with velcro not from Velcro or zipper not from Universal Fastener Company, drinking Coke from Pepsi and generally with using trademarks and brands as generic words in cases where it makes the sentence more instead of less clear -- Hkmaly (talk) 00:17, 6 November 2021 (UTC)

Is altruism the only thing that psychologists study? It seems like psych students should be suspicious of just about any interactions. For instance, if they're invited to play in a game of chance, it could be a study of how they assess risk. Barmar (talk) 21:11, 5 November 2021 (UTC)

I understood the comic as if he was given a choice that will reveal something about his personality instead of the altruism interpretation. The two very different options led me to this idea, that he doesn't want to choose the cookie because it seems unhealthy or whatever. 23:04, 5 November 2021 (UTC)

I second the idea that what he's afraid of isn't altruism but choice. -- Hkmaly (talk) 00:17, 6 November 2021 (UTC)

I was given a choice of snack in one study that I participated in. But I don't know WHY. This might be too niche for me to understand.

I don't think this really has anything to do with altruism. The cookie vs apple thing is reminiscent of studies on self-control, and in general I think the idea is that a lot of psychological studies require participants to make choices, and the participants are also often not made aware of the true nature of the experiment to avoid skewing results. Esogalt (talk) 00:15, 6 November 2021 (UTC)

Given a few people seem to generally agree with me, I've been bold™ and changed the explanation to relegate "altruism" to a secondary interpretation. Some examples of specific studies would be great; I'm blanking right now. Esogalt (talk) 01:09, 6 November 2021 (UTC)

This seems like it would be more effective on an Ayn Rand fanboy than a psych major. GreatWyrmGold (talk) 05:32, 6 November 2021 (UTC)

What if the real lesson here is that all psychologists are just over-trained to be super cautious about considering EVERYTHING to be a psych experiment that requires ethics review? Maybe if the person offering snacks were ALSO a psychologist, they ACTUALLY WOULD BE REQUIRED to undergo IRB review and experiment documentation procedures and consent requirements.... JUST TO FIND OUT, as a matter of mild personal curiosity, which snack a specific person actually happened to prefer. 09:01, 8 November 2021 (UTC)

Being asked whether I consent to cookies is literally the most common question I get this entire decade so far. 21:51, 9 November 2021 (UTC)

With enough time and drive I'm sure we could come up with a beautifully compelling subtext for this comic involving cookies, Facebook, ambiguously ethical experimentation, Apple Inc., and the relationship therebetween. Esogalt (talk) 22:55, 9 November 2021 (UTC)