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18 May 2024 18:42
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  •   Home > News > Law and Order

    Spending 30 years in a psychological study by Jack and Jeanne Block warped journalist Susannah Breslin's life

    From her early childhood well into adulthood, Susannah Breslin was studied by US researchers who became like parent figures to her. She has mixed feelings about the study's impact on her life.

    For three decades, Susannah Breslin was studied by researchers.

    As a baby, her parents enrolled her in a University of California, Berkeley laboratory preschool, a place that was "essentially designed for spying on children", Breslin tells .

    There, she unknowingly became the subject of a study that would continue well into her adult life.

    "My parents were intellectuals. They were cool in temperament. They were not touchy-feely. And they, I think, had high expectations for their children," Breslin says.

    The preschool was exclusive, with a long waitlist, and her parents "thought it would be cool to have me enrolled [and] involved in something important", she says.

    They thought they were setting their daughter off on a path of exceptionalism.

    "My principal investigators were benevolent; they wanted to enlighten humanity. They were sort of working in service of the greater good. That's why they were collecting our data. That's why they were studying us," Breslin says.

    "And the cost was we didn't have a private life of our own."

    'Somebody on the other side of the mirror'

    In the 1960s, American psychologists Jack and Jeanne Block developed a longitudinal study to observe how personality traits and cognition develop over the course of a lifetime.

    "The only way to find [that] out was to gather together a group of kids and study them from childhood and into adulthood," Breslin explains.

    She was one of 128 children recruited.

    One of her earliest memories of the preschool is being in a room with activities like puzzles and toy animals, playing games with an adult she later learned was testing and studying her, and observing her interactions with other children.

    Once she'd left the preschool for primary school, Breslin was routinely brought back to the university at key developmental stages, where researchers would capture data from IQ, personality and other tests.

    They would assess her report cards. They would ask her about her life.

    During one of these sessions, when she was seven years old, Breslin recalls an incredible moment.

    She was in a room with a researcher who had placed a bowl of lollies between the two of them.

    "The examiner was asking me all these questions about myself and then at one point he said, 'Would you like some candy?'"

    The young Breslin wondered if this might be a kind of test, so she refused the offer. Soon after, the examiner said he needed to leave for a minute but would be right back.

    As soon as he walked out of the room, Breslin jumped across the table and lunged for the bowl, accidentally knocking it over in the process.

    "I started grabbing the candy and shoving it in my mouth, hoping I wasn't going to get in trouble for making a mess," she says.

    "And then for some reason I looked — I remember this very distinctly — into this mirror that was on the wall. And I could see and feel my cheeks turning pink, and I sensed that there was somebody on the other side of the mirror watching me.

    "And in fact, that was a one-way mirror, and somebody was on the other side, spying on me."

    Study 'like a third parent'

    When Breslin got older and found out about the study, she was in two minds about the realisation she was being observed.

    "On the one hand, I liked it. My parents were distant, they were busy, they were preoccupied with their careers … and their marriage was falling apart.

    "When I was in an experiment room at the university, it was exactly what I wanted. I was the centre of attention. And they were interested in nothing but me."

    The idea that Breslin was important, that she mattered and that someone cared were not messages she was getting at home, she says.

    "At the same time, I think I felt a lot of pressure to perform at some high level; that I was supposed to prove to [the researchers] that I was exceptional. And if I didn't, maybe I wouldn't be able to come back again."

    The study "was kind of like a third parent", she says.

    Researchers served as confidants. Breslin told them more secrets than she told her parents.

    "The researchers were interested in the things that I was going through. They were interested in whether or not we were using drugs, they were interested in how our parents' divorces were affecting us. And I told them things that I didn't tell anyone else.

    "I have this idea that this study potentially knew me better than I knew myself."

    Humans more than a 'mathematical equation'

    Today Breslin is an investigative journalist, and recently wrote a book about her experience being studied, Data Baby: My Life in a Psychological Experiment.

    The process of writing that helped her to understand just how much she divulged over the course of the study.

    "You kind of surrender your life story to somebody else … I was unsure if I was the author of the story of my life, or if someone else was," she says.

    "In my opinion, my principal investigators believed that a person was the sum total of their data; that a human being was the answer to a mathematical equation, and if you could just make the right calculation or perform the right analysis or extract the correct amount of data, you could understand that person.

    "And I think that is wrong. I think that there is something about people that goes beyond that; that there is a certain essential nature to people that is impossible to quantify."

    Yet, Breslin credits the study for her life today.

    "I have struggled with anxiety and depression my whole life. And I do wonder if I hadn't been studied and I hadn't had [it] in my life, that the outcome for me might have been much bleaker; that I might have killed myself or gotten involved in something dangerous that I couldn't get myself out of.

    "So while it was certainly complicated to be studied, I think ultimately it rescued me from a worse fate."

    Breslin's final contact with the researchers was in 1999, at the age of 32.

    Since then, she says she's been forced "to construct my own narrative and decide for myself who I am, rather than entrusting that task to somebody else".


    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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