Hollywood, Pavlovian Pups, and The Best Adjusted Nervous System Response Desired by Corporate Psychologists

I just watched a film short on Turner Classic Movies that was pretty interesting, titled “Of Pups and Puzzles”. The film was released Sept 1941 and thus predated, if by just a few months, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WWII, so it wasn’t your standard WWII patriotic oompahpah, though I felt the stars and stripes in a back closet chafing at the bit. Instead, the film’s focus was to educate the public on the advances of modern science and psychology in building imminent utopia, the subject that day being how “psychometricians” had perfected the ability of matching the applicant to the perfect job, which of course makes for a happy, jolly, no-complaints universe in which no one’s talents go unappreciated and even the stoop-shouldered depression era hobo would now be able to exchange his hobo bag for a proper lunch pail.

The desperate, Grapes of Wrath, father figure shuffles off screen, replaced with three young, white, male applicants who will be funneled into job nirvana via three tests.

Kind of like a fairy tale.

In the first test, there are rows and rows of tightly packed stacks of poker chips, and the applicants have to pick up each stack and flip it over as quickly as they are able.

The film then scans the titles of a number of animal behavior books as it prepares to divulge for us exactly how the second test had come about via animal testing. You see, there were once three dogs and each dog was Pavlovian trained to expect a bowl of food when shown a perfect circle on a screen. Then the three dogs were trained to expect a pane of glass separating them from their food when they were shown a flattened oval. Now, how would each of these dogs respond when shown neither the flattened oval or a circle but a fuller oval? The breed that was something like a Shetland sheep dog started barking, and thus its nervous system was determined to be naturally inclined to “hysteria”. The spaniel cocked its head then laid down on one side and just looked kind of confused. The bull dog turned its back on the whole shebang, laid down and prepared to sleep. The bull dog was declared to have the best adjusted nervous system response.

This animal test was given as the foundation for the second test to which the job applicants were subjected.

They sat three men down and gave them each a row of figures they had to tally up within the space of a minute. They were told they would have a surprise, not a bad surprise, but a surprise, and must finish up the row of figures regardless of whatever happened.

I wondered what would the surprise be and decided a stripper would fit the bill for a distraction that was a “surprise” but not a “bad surprise”. But because you can’t have a stripper in a film from the 1940s I waited for a cake to be rolled on scene and a woman to pop out.

So the three men sit and begin working on the figures.

Behind their backs, the tester pulls a handgun.

You read that right.

A revolver.

And standing behind the men he began firing blanks at the ceiling.

No one ran from the room. No one tackled the tester. No one screamed, “You crazy shit!” and called their lawyer. No one dove under the desk.

Which amounts to a big Fail! Right? Let’s see who survives the real world. The hobo? Certainly. The Grapes of Wrath father figure would have quickly, reflexively determined whether his best bet was to heave his chair at the tester and attempt to bean him with a second, or dive under his desk and overturn it to form a shield.

Instead, the film was scripted so one applicant showed just enough alarm as to be too nervous to finish his task on time (the hysterical one, I guess), one showed moderate confusion, while the third–the applicant with the reflexes of a rock–looked briefly up after a moment to see if if anyone had got the phone yet then returned to finishing his mathematics problem.

I fully comprehend that testing how dogs respond to a geometric form is exactly the same as seeing how job applicants tabulating numbers respond to a gun being fired behind them. Don’t you?

Thus did Hollywood demonstrate that no corporate job applicant who buys that hazing is all fun and games is a real world survivor, and every theater-goer was trained to expect and accept the corporate boss discharging a pistol behind his back as only a test of his ability to keep his dedicated nose to the wheel.

Directed by George Sidney, who next would be trusted with his first feature film, won the 1942 Oscar for best one-reel short subject, not humor.

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