kitchen table math, the sequel: the dead man's test

Monday, July 23, 2012

the dead man's test

For years I have puzzled over the weirdness of diets and dieting.

When you're on a diet -- when I'm on a diet -- I'm trying to not do something. Not eat ice cream, or not eat potato chips, or not take 2nd, 3rd, or 4th helpings, or not consume any one of a gazillion different things a person would happily wolf down if calories were not an issue. Conceivably, the list of things I'm trying not to eat is infinite.

This has always confounded me. Infinite notness: does that even make sense? I mean, sure, the universe is infinite and all, but does infinite notness make sense as a plan?

Say you're a human being confronting a challenge or pursuing a goal: don't you usually make a plan to actually do something?

Take a concrete step or two?

Formulate a plan of action?

Assuming the answer is generally speaking 'yes,' where do diets fit in? With a diet, the basic idea is to spend 16 hours a day not doing something, so is not doing something the plan?

Not eating junk 16 hours a day every day from now on?

Is not doing something doing something?

I find the whole thing mystifying, and I always have.

The best answer I've come up with is that not doing something isn't doing something, not really. And, as a corollary, not doing something when it comes to food is harder than doing something.

My foray into quasi-veganism seems to support my hunch, but until yesterday I had no idea what research had to say on the subject if anything.

Turns out the precision teaching folk figured it out long ago:
The Dead Man Test

The dead man test was devised by Ogden Lindsley in 1965 as a rule of thumb for deciding if something is a behavior. The need for such a test stems from the importance of focusing on what an organism actually does when attempting to understand or modify its behavior. It serves as a guideline for the identification of whether the "behavior" of interest could be performed or measurably demonstrated by a "dead man."

The question posed by the dead man's test is this: Can a dead man do it? If the answer is yes, it doesn't pass the dead man's test and it isn't a fair pair -– for example "behave appropriately 80% of lunch hour" -– then it is not a well written goal. If the answer is no, you have a fair pair. For example:

Suppose that you wanted a fair pair target behavior for "swears at peers." Let's say that you came up with the target behavior "does not swear at peers." Does this pass the dead man's test? No. A dead man could refrain from swearing at peers. What would be better? How about "speaks to peers without swearing"? This passes the dead man's test because a dead man does not have the power to speak.
Don't eat ice cream is definitely something a dead man can do.

On the other hand, Stop eating ice cream is not something a dead man can do.


I'm going to eat an apple tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I think you pencil-whipped the dead man's test. Stop eating ice cream and don't eat ice cream are very much the same thing. Unless you mean by the first eat only a small quantity of ice cream and then stop.

Eat an apple for a snack passes the dead man's test, however. Congrats.

As for diets, maybe the live person approach is to eat lots of non-fattening food, like salads (just don't make them the way I do, with bacon and then croutons fried in the bacon grease).

So eat lots of spinach! Eat lots of lettuce! Eat lots of raw carrots!

And of course exercise before breakfast.

Another place to focus is at the supermarket. Buy lots of vegetables and fill your fridge with them. Then you'll feel obligated to eat them before they go bad (unlike ice cream, which can stay in your freezer for a long time).

Michael Weiss said...

This, interestingly enough, is precisely why I don't like the term "unschooling". It fails the dead man test: the word only describes what is not happening, rather than what is happening. That's why so many people think that unschooling means "do nothing".

I personally prefer the term "free learning" (cf. the analogy with "free verse" that I posted in the comments on the other thread). But the terminology ship, alas, has sailed.

Jen said...

I don't think "stop eating ice cream" does pass the test for anyone -- since stopping eating requires starting eating and seems to assume you are eating ice cream most of the time. (mmmmm)

"Eat 1/4 cup, measured out and eaten with a baby spoon, and no more of ice cream per day"

"Eat ice cream only when -- insert here conditions regarding time, quantity, place, utensils used, flavor, or other behaviors to have completed."

palisadesk said...

Where I found the "Dead Man Test" useful was in goal-setting and problem solving. For instance at school support team meetings, we might be considering a 2nd grader who is always out of seat, interrupting others, fooling around. When we try to focus on specific plans of action, with measurable steps and goals, it is not unusual for for goals like "stops shouting out" to make the list.

Enter the Dead Man Test. I'm usually taking the notes, so I lead off with, What do you want to see Student X DO?

I may get another answer that describes what we DON'T want. Then I point out, '"Don't interrupt" fails the Dead Man Test. If a dead person can do it, it's not a behavior. " After some laughter we can refocus on what it will look like if the student behaves the way we want:
--stays on task for 3 minutes
--raises hand before speaking
--puts completed assignment in basket
and so forth. It's a matter of looking at things in terms of what you WANT to see (usually, in increments, so that you can develop the habits or skills) instead of what you DON'T WANT.

A maxim I remember from long ago is, You get more of what you pay attention to. The Morningside people make a great deal of observing and reinforcing the appropriate behaviors and study habits -- real behaviors, not "dead man" non-behaviors.

Catherine Johnson said...

Eat an apple for a snack passes the dead man's test, however. Congrats.


true confessions: I did NOT eat an apple the day after I wrote this post.

Catherine Johnson said...

hen you'll feel obligated to eat them before they go bad


Catherine Johnson said...

hen you'll feel obligated to eat them before they go bad


Catherine Johnson said...

it is not unusual for for goals like "stops shouting out" to make the list.


And it's actually quite difficult --- or at least not intuitive --- to specify what it is that would be happening instead of shouting out -----

At the Summer Institute, I was trying to specify what behavior would replace 'stop interrupting peers,' and I couldn't do it. (In my defense, I will add that I have never taught grade school kids ... I would probably be able to come up with the equivalent for college freshman fairly easily --- )