Is egress destiny?

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CTA rendering of Irving Park station
  • CTA rendering of Irving Park station
The station house of the Irving Park stop on the CTA's Brown Line opens onto the northern sidewalk of Irving Park Road via two sets of double doors. Departing passengers headed east leave by the doors to the left, those headed west by the doors to the right. Irving Park is my stop, and as I exit with the hordes returning to their homes at day's end I think about the hordes—perhaps obsessively. At some point it occurred to me that those doors could be monitored to separate the people passing through them into two groups: most people, and a smaller group distinguished by significantly greater intelligence, creativity, and abstract thinking ability.

Or perhaps they couldn't. I like to think they could because I'm partial to the idea of simple tests that reveal profound differences. For instance, there is psychologist Walter Mischel's marshmallow test of a half century ago, the one in which preschoolers offered a marshmallow by a researcher who tells them that if they hold off, they can eat two later. Mischel was studying willpower in toddlers; but it later turned out that the children who chose to defer and double their pleasure grew up to be healthier and more socially adept than the other children, and scored a couple of hundred points higher on their SATs.

The marshallow test was just discussed by an article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine with the troubling subtitle, "How a simple experiment about impulse control became a seductive gospel truth." The writer, Michael Bourne, observes that Mischel's marshmallow test is alluring because it seems to offer scientific evidence that "character is destiny," but he goes on to question those of us who are allured: he holds that the test indulges our desire for "the instant gratification of an easy answer."

Bourne doesn't say the marshmallow test is a false test, but he notes that the peer-reviewed literature discussing it "bristles with complex statistical formulas hedged with caveats and cautionary footnotes," none of which is taken into account by the doting public. He argues that willpower—even if we assume Mischel's test accurately identified it—is only one of many factors that shape our lives, and for that matter only one of many factors that go into determining whether a child eats one or two marshmallows. For instance, he writes, poor children would be less likely to trust the researcher to actually produce the second marshmallow later on. He quoted from a 2013 study that observed that for some children, "the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed."

Perhaps my proposed study of the swinging doors at the Irving Park Brown Line el stop would be similarly compromised—though I can't see how. After all, a door is a door—social, psychological, and economic differences melt away when it comes to walking through a door. Moreover, subjects put to the test by the doors would have no idea they were being tested. They'd simply be performing what they might call a mindless action. But that action would reveal everything.

My focus has always been on the double doors to the left because those are the ones I leave by. I like to go slow, letting the wave of passengers from my train approach the doors ahead of me while I watch. When the person in the lead reaches the double doors he or she will push one of them open—which door will it be?

It is usually the door to the left. We're all eager to get to where we're going, and leaving by the door farther east in order to go east is a decision that for most people is automatic. Pushing open the door to the right—the door farther west—requires an instant application of perspicacity. It requires processing the following information: the door to the left swings open to the left, so it will open in your way and you will have to step around it. The door to the right swings open to the right so it will open away from you. Push it open only a crack and you can slide past and be on your way. A minority—an elite minority, I'm willing to say—recognizes this. Most people, made of more common clay, open the wrong door every time.

I've just said I hang back in the station house to see what others will do. Not always. If I'm with friends or family I make sure I reach the double doors first. I don't want to know.

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