What is a Psychological Task? The Operational Pliability of “Task” in Psychological Laboratory Experimentation

  • Hazel Morrison Durham University
  • Shannon McBriar Amsterdam University College
  • Hilary Powell Durham University
  • Jesse Proudfoot Durham University
  • Steven Stanley Cardiff University
  • Des Fitzgerald Cardiff University
  • Felicity Callard Birkbeck, University of London
Keywords: experiments, mind wandering, operational pliability, psychology, qualitative interviews, task


There has been no sustained sociological analysis of a near ubiquitous feature of psychological laboratory experimentation: the task. Yet the task is central in arranging the means by which phenomena are isolated and brought into the experimental scientist’s purview. As scientific objects, states such as mind wandering and daydreaming have been made visible in experiments that draw on a (sometimes) sharp distinction between what it means to be either “on task” or “off task”––which entails a long history of what it means to have a subject attend to her task, a central aspect of the psychology experiment since its foundation. Through an analysis of qualitative interviews with research participants in studies of so-called “mind wandering,” it becomes clear that task is deployed and understood in multiple ways: it is often hard to distinguish when a person is on task and when they are not; when participants reflect on their own internal states the boundedness that the concept relies upon is drawn sharply into question; and the complex spatio-temporal organization of experiences of both mind wandering and task disrupts the metaphorical structures that the scientific literature has baked into these terms. The term “operational pliability” allows us to understand how the pliability of the practice and concept of task is central to how task functions. Operational pliability offers a way of understanding how particular elements in scientific investigation are easily adaptable and at the same time are able to hold some kind of shape or form.

Author Biographies

Hazel Morrison, Durham University

Hazel Morrison is an interdisciplinary scholar, whose work contributes to the growing field of the critical medical humanities. Her research interests range from studies of psychopathy, patient case notes and the paradigmatic patient, to the wandering mind in relation to phenomenology, experimentalism and “being human.” She conducted the research for this article while a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Geography and the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University. She is currently a research assistant at the University of Edinburgh.

Shannon McBriar, Amsterdam University College

Shannon McBriar is Lecturer in Humanities at Amsterdam University College, The Netherlands.  Her research focuses on the theory of affordances in relation to mind wandering and uncertainty, and she is a frequent contributor to interdisciplinary research seeking to encourage dialogue between cognitive science, theory, and fiction.

Hilary Powell, Durham University

Hilary Powell is an honorary research fellow in the Department of English Studies at Durham University. A medievalist by training, she has worked on several Wellcome-funded interdisciplinary projects in the medical humanities. Her recent publications examine cognitive and literary approaches to countering daydreaming in the medieval monastery. 

Jesse Proudfoot, Durham University

Jesse Proudfoot is an Assistant Professor (Research) and Marie Curie Junior Research Fellow in the Department of Geography and Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University. His research examines drug addiction and addictions treatment through ethnographic fieldwork with drug users. His published work has examined problems at the intersection of geography and the medical humanities, including the relationship between place, trauma, and addiction, and the libidinal economies of drug policy. 

Steven Stanley, Cardiff University

Steven Stanley is a critical psychologist in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. He is interested in therapeutic cultures and the history of psychology, especially in relation to Buddhism. He co-edited Handbook of Ethical Foundations of Mindfulness and is currently leading the Mapping Mindfulness project, a social study of the UK mindfulness meditation movement funded by The Leverhulme Trust.

Note on Contributions

Hazel Morrison designed and conducted the interview study, in consultation with Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald. All authors were involved in the analysis of the interview transcripts, and in the research for and writing of the article. 

Des Fitzgerald, Cardiff University

Des Fitzgerald is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Social Science, Cardiff University. He is the author of Tracing Autism: Uncertainty, Ambiguity and the Affective Labor of Neuroscience (University of Washington Press, 2017) and, with Felicity Callard, Rethinking Interdisciplinarity Across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences (Palgrave, 2015).


Note on Contributions

Hazel Morrison designed and conducted the interview study, in consultation with Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald. All authors were involved in the analysis of the interview transcripts, and in the research for and writing of the article. 

Felicity Callard, Birkbeck, University of London

Felicity Callard is Professor of Social Research and Director of the Institute for Social Research at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author, with Des Fitzgerald, of Rethinking Interdisciplinarity Across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences (Palgrave, 2015), and Editor-in-Chief of History of the Human Sciences. She is researching mind wandering, daydreaming and fantasy in the twentieth- and twenty-first century human sciences.



Note on Contributions

Hazel Morrison designed and conducted the interview study, in consultation with Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald. All authors were involved in the analysis of the interview transcripts, and in the research for and writing of the article. 


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