Imitation of life: plaything promises to offer insight into stereotyping

Matthew Reisz reports on an old parlour game that has become an innovative research method

March 10, 2011

Researchers at Cardiff University believe that a new version of an old parlour game can provide us, for the first time, with a tool to "quantify cultural understanding".

In the Imitation Game, a man and a woman leave a room and respond in writing to a series of questions. People must guess which is the real woman and which the man pretending to be a woman (or vice versa).

Academics have adapted this game to create a powerful experimental technique for social research.

Someone from a particular group, perhaps defined by race, religion or sexual orientation, sits at a computer and types in questions.

He or she gets a response from two people, one a genuine member of the same group and the other attempting to pass as one. The judge must determine who the impostor is and explain their reasoning.

Both the number of questions required to reach a conclusion and the person's degree of certainty are also recorded.

If the samples are large enough, the results can provide revealing quantitative and qualitative data about stereotyping, tolerance and mutual understanding.

The possibilities are endless. Can a sighted person convince a blind person that he or she is blind? Is it possible to give a convincing imitation of what it is like to be colour-blind? Are black people who have always lived in "a white world" better at passing for white than the other way round? How far do straight people understand what it means to be gay, and does this differ by age, class, date or location?

Harry Collins, a professor at the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, said he had been "playing around" with the game for decades. He is convinced that it offers an ideal way to study and quantify what he and colleagues have defined as "interactional expertise" - "the extent to which certain groups have learned to become fluent in the cultural repertoires of others".

They have won substantial funding from the European Research Council to carry out a project in four different European regions looking at "gender relations, ethnic minorities, religion and sexuality".

In addition to providing rich sociological data that may be tracked across time or used alongside other statistics, Professor Collins believes the work will transform the imitation technique from a "plaything" into an established method for international comparative social research.

Although this is the first time the Imitation Game has been used for systematic research, it inspired the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing to create his Turing test, which states that a machine can be classed as "intelligent" only when it responds to questions in a way that allows it to pass for human.

Turing was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Convicted of indecency, he submitted to chemical castration and died, in a suspected suicide, in his forties.

It is a striking sign of how things have changed for the better that, in Professor Collins' initial trials, straight students at Cardiff proved much more adept at passing as gay than non-churchgoers were at pretending to be Christians.

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