Editor’s Note-Behaving Like the Boys

Editor’s Note-Behaving Like the Boys

A Note on Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty.

For more than 20 years, I’ve repeated a story that ends in an enigma. Expecting a punch line, people who listen to it get a puzzle. Here it is:

At the start of the school year, a dozen Apple Valley first-graders—half of them boys, half of them girls, one of them my daughter, Amanda—were assigned to an unsupervised bus stop a few houses down the street from us. From the first day of school, while every one of the girls stood in an orderly line, the boys roughhoused. They ran away with each other’s caps. They gathered piles of leaves and threw them into the street. They stomped in puddles, for no apparent reason but to be annoying.

 Winter arrived. The boys threw snowballs—at a stop sign, the nearest house, and each other. They marched over front yards to make footprints in new-fallen snow, kicked plowed snow onto newly shoveled sidewalks, and jumped into drifts from a section of decorative fencing. The girls stood quietly in line, ignoring the boys.

Then in late January, the bus stop was divided into two—and coincidentally, all of the boys were assigned to one, the girls to the other. The boys did not seem to notice, and their behavior did not noticeably change. But the girls’ behavior changed instantly and dramatically. They began immediately to behave like the boys.

 They threw snowballs. They battered down a snowdrift. One shook my mailbox. And there was Amanda, tromping in her baby-blue boots across our snow-covered lawn to gleefully heave the largest block of snow she could possibly carry onto the driveway that I had cleared the previous evening.

It is possible that there is a feminist explanation for the two sets of behaviors, or a theory of developmental psychology. If so, I can’t find one.


So let’s turn to quantum physics and Werner Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty, which says, in essence: The behavior of the subject under observation is altered by the presence of the viewing apparatus. Heisenberg discovered in the 1920s that the movement of electrons is altered under the light of a microscope; why shouldn’t the behavior of first-grade girls be affected by the presence of first-grade boys?

A concomitant theory in social sciences is called the Hawthorne Effect. Seeking ways to improve employee productivity, researchers at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works found that workers would produce more as lights were turned brighter in their work area—but they also produced more as light was decreased. The explanation was that they worked harder because they knew they were being observed. (Some said they felt “special” because their employer was manifestly interested in their efforts.) 

Most of us behave at least a little differently in front of different people. We are polite to our grandmothers, patronizing to police officers, and gruff to panhandlers. Often, modifications in demeanor are not only conscious, but planned—as when protestors chant and wave signs while television cameras are rolling, but head home as soon as the reporters leave. It is the Hawthorne Effect that accounts for the unreality of reality television.

Good reporters become acutely aware that they can influence the behavior of their subjects. During interviews—under observation—subjects naturally engage in a bit of preening and posturing. Jack Gordon, who wrote the feature in this issue about an immigrant grocer named Tuan Pham, is particularly good at getting subjects to present themselves without pretense, as I think you’ll agree he did this month.

Happily, the issue of altering the behavior of a subject does not arise when a story focuses on a trend in commercial, municipal, or economic development—as does this month’s cover story by Gene Rebeck. Read it first.

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