January 25, 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like your responses to a thought experiment.

Imagine yourself in a large group of people.  An official-looking person asks the group to separate into twenty-six smaller groups, organized according to the first letter of members' first names.

Then another official-looking person comes into the room wheeling a cart of cupcakes in three different flavors:  chocolate, say, lemon, and red velvet.  (The you in this thought experiment both loves cupcakes and loves chocolate, lemon, and red velvet cupcakes equally.)  As the official-looking person walks around the room, she offers each person his or her choice of cupcakes (this is apparently a bottomless cart).  Some people choose chocolate, some lemon, and some red velvet.

Then, when the official-looking person gets to your group, the people who share the first letter of your first name, she says, "Oh, sorry, the lemon cupcakes aren't for you.  You may have your pick of the chocolate and the red velvet."  You take a cupcake, perhaps chocolate, perhaps red velvet.

Then she continues on, offering members of the rest of the groups their choice of all three kinds of cupcakes.

So here's the question:  Are you angry that you weren't given the choices the other groups were given?  If so, how angry?  (I will reveal that, in the piece I'm working on that includes this thought experiment, the title of the section is Fuck You and Your Goddamn Cupcake, which ought to make my answer clear, but you have no obligation to agree with me.) 

Note, please, that the question I'm asking isn't about practicality—a cupcake is a cupcake, I still like red velvet, if that's the way it worked out then whatever—but about the visceral emotional reaction you do or don't have to the thought.

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22 Responses to

  1. Barbara LeMay says:

    Hmmm, this is an interestingexperiment!
    My initial reaction is not anger (I might be weird that way) but intense, almost obsessive curiosity. WHY were the lemon cupcakes not for us? Is there something wrong with the lemon cupcakes and my group has for some reason been spared? Are we special in some way? Are we being singled out for some honor or bonus later on? Or is something wrong with us? Are we not liked as well, or perhaps is there some new correlation between the letter “B” and lemon intolerance? Finally I would begin asking around– the others in the group, the official-looking person, lemon cupcake-munchers from the other letter groups. If I were given no satisfactory answer, THEN I would start feeling angry, and frankly a bit paranoid. The longer this lasted, and since by now it’s dawned on the real me where this thought experiment of yours is going, I would eventually be forced to come to the conclusion that apparently there’s just something about Bs that they don’t like, and I would be heartbroken! This is so unfair! There’s nothing so terribly different about being a B that I should be entitled to fewer choices than a C or A! As impersonal as they might try to make it, I would feel unvalued, perhaps hated, and my heartbreak would soon turn to fury.

  2. goblinbox says:

    I tend to obey official-looking persons. I tend, even with lavish evidence to the contrary, to believe that they have reasons for doing whatever they’re doing. I would therefore feel somewhat baffled at being denied the full choice of cupcakes, but not angry, and I don’t think it would occur to me to feel discriminated against unless others in my letter group brought it up first. I might have an expectation that my group would get some kind of compensation later for not having had the same choices as the others.

  3. Countervail says:

    I think this is a pretty standard psychological experiment to gauge the reaction of people receiving unexpected gifts that are then taken away. The reaction is usually pretty strong, people less aware of the beneficence of getting anything in the first place, more aware of the injustice of it being taken away.


  4. Mathieu says:

    I wouldn’t call it discrimination… but I’d be pissed all the same! You bet I’d be having a hard time making up my mind… and then choosing the one I’m being denied.

    If I’m in a very good mood, I may wave it off though. Otherwise I may demand an explanation then and there!

  5. Jill Smith says:

    I would be very angry. I would wonder what changed between “You have your choice” and “No, this choice is not for you.”

    My anger would have nothing to do with free cupcakes and everything with feelings of discrimination and that there is some sort of con being played here – and not even a con where someone respects my intelligence enough to give me a plausible story to make it a good con. It’s a cheap con that says, “You’re a stupid sheep – just pick a cupcake.”

  6. TED says:

    I don’t even know anyone whose last name begins with X.

    My last name comes fairly late in the alphabet, so while I gather that your experiment is some sort of metaphor, years of having to sit at the back of the classroom have rendered me a little touchy on this particular subject.

    Anyway, I’m not sure exactly how I’d react in this particular case because, truly, lemon cupcakes are usually not everything they should be, whereas chocolate and red velvet cupcakes are somewhat more reliable. Nonetheless, if only out of spite, I like to think that I’d knock that bitch down and take a lemon cupcake.

  7. Monica says:

    I think my response would be baffled, at the seemingly arbitrariness of the entire situation, and more or less annoyed depending on whether I liked the choices I was left with or not. And then I’d try to trade cupcakes with someone in another group, to get the kind I wanted.

  8. Sam Buggeln says:

    I’ve heard a version of this question asked by economists, I think it’s something like: there’s a task that takes two people, and you’re happy to do (your part of) it for $50. You get a choice: either you and your partner (a stranger) each get paid $50; or you get paid $75 and the other person gets paid $250. Most people prefer the former, even though it’s worse for all parties. It’s a reason that classical (Keynsian) economics doesn’t work: we don’t always make the choice he considered rational– we like justice and shit. 🙂

  9. Jeffrey says:

    I’d be pretty fucking pissed off (when am I not, after all). My likely response, spiteful as I am, would be, “Keep your goddamn cupcakes anyway. You think I want my ass to look as huge as yours?”

    At least, in my head, that’s what I’d say.

  10. vuboq says:

    If I had already decided on a lemon cupcake and was reaching for it when the official looking person said I couldn’t have it, I would be right pissed off. However, if I hadn’t yet made my decision, I might be slightly perturbed … but, mmmm, cupcakes!

  11. Ayako says:

    I will be very angry that I wasn’t offered the full complement of choices without explanation. I will be angry enough to protest at that moment and point out the inequity and demand an explanation. (Hope this helps – good luck with the writing!)

  12. Prianka says:

    I’m about halfway through the alphabet, so my first reaction would be confusion. I’d pay attention to the fact that no one else was being limited in their choices, and it would start to bother me. Part of me would be saying to just let it go, that it wasn’t a big deal. But part of me would keep wondering what it was, whether it was something we did, but no of course it wasn’t, it’s just a letter of the alphabet. It would start as a minor thing, but it would keep eating away at me for a while.

    Unfortunately, being of the extremely non-confrontational sort, I probably wouldn’t do anything about it other than obsess and feel upset unless someone else did so first, in which case I’d be more likely to voice my displeasure as well.

  13. Mary Sisson says:

    I would want to know why no one in my group can have the lemon, even if I was happy without it. What if someone is allergic to chocolate? Red velvet has cocoa powder in it. What if someone prefers the lemon? Can we make an exception for someone who cares? If not, why not? Does this restriction apply only to my group? Why?

    In short, I don’t think I’d be so much angry as I would be kind of a pain in the ass about it. Part of it would be simple curiosity; part of it would be a desire to make sure that no one with special needs is getting screwed.

  14. roger says:

    I would probably just be really depressed and wonder what I did to deserve such a humiliation. But, of course, I would still have a cupcake to help me get over the depression!

  15. Todd says:

    Not to get all psychobabbly on you or anything, but when I worked with youths, we often said “anger is not an emotion, but a reaction to an emotion.” Therefore, under your ‘Fuck you and your goddamn cupcake’ there is an “I feel inferior” or an “I feel ostracized” or an “I feel discriminated against” or an . . . you get the drift. I assume that this is for a piece of writing of some sort. Angry is so boring and superficial; crazy old men are angry, thoughtful cute men are emotional and eloquent.

  16. Dr. Tectonic says:

    In the abstract, I think I would be… somewhat annoyed. More than irked, not all the way to irritated, perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of peeved. Who are they to deny me lemon? It’s arbitrary and ridiculous and unfair on a fundamental level. An affront to the very concept of justice. But, on the other hand, it’s also… just a cupcake. And yes, cupcakes are lovely, but still. It’s… a cupcake. And I still have a cupcake, albeit of another flavor, but one that I love just as much as lemon, and that’s more than I had before. So overall… enh. Bothersome, but not that big a deal.

    However, in practice, I suspect that if the thought experiment were actually to come to pass, my reaction would be determined almost entirely by the Official-Looking Person’s delivery of the news that my group cannot have lemon cupcakes, which is not specified in the experiment. Is she apologetic and seemingly sincere? Well, sometimes life is arbitrary and nonsensical. I would sigh and eat my cupcake. Is she disdainful and haughty? Towering fury. I would demand to speak to authorities. I would probably yell. I might even throw things.

    • Mathieu says:

      I agree: it would probably depend on what the fat lady was like… (yeah, I’ve decided this second person was a fat lady)

  17. David says:

    When i imagine this situation i feel confusion and disappointment at first but that pretty quickly gives way to outrage when i realize that only my group has been singled out. i would lose any kind of enjoyment from my remaining choice, even if my favorite of the three was available, because there would be an inherent snub or disenfranchisement there. if there weren’t enough people for a D group and i was the only one, it would be even worse beause i’d be able to take it personally and that would also be humiliating. either way, whatever cupcake i have is about to become a weapon.

  18. DF says:

    I’m pretty sure I’d be bemused in the hypothetical example. I am taking you literally — if some other things were yanked away, I’d be considerably crankier.

  19. Susannah says:

    Strangely enough, this happened to me once. Not this exactly, but something strangely similar.

    I was three years old, and for some reason I was among a group of kids playing downstairs from our apartment in the Bronx. I was the youngest, of course – the baby.

    A boy named Skippy, who was older [5? 6? 10?] and obviously the leader, announced to everyone that we would now start picking violets, which grew profusely in the empty lot we were playing in.

    But then he told me – me, the youngest! – and only me, that I couldn’t pick violets, which were all around for the picking. No, he said, I could only pick four-leaf clovers [actually, I don’t remember if he said four-leaf clovers or just clovers].

    I complained loudly that there were no clovers, only violets. I was used to complaining loudly because I had a brother who was five years older than me, and had the same dictatorial nature as Skippy.

    What happened then? Skippy bent down and picked a clover that was growing right there at my feet. He smiled and gave it to me, and said, “Look, here’s one! Now go find more!”

    Of course, I couldn’t find any more, although I kept looking, holding my miserable clover, as the other kids scampered around, picking bunches of of beautiful, fragrant violets.

    The visceral reaction I had to that experience – and still have, every time I think of it – is the same reaction I have to your cupcake thought experiment.

  20. Tiz says:

    no i’m not going to be angry because i still get a cupcake anyway but this is going to make me really crave a lemon flavoured one. which might result in me turning really cranky doing so.

  21. Daniel says:

    I’m pretty anti-authoritarian. I would assume I was being played (!). If that person was key to my participation in that gathering, I would probably leave, if possible. If walking away was an unfeasible choice, I would challenge the cupcake Nazi. I’ve had terrible experiences with hostesses with personality disorders.


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