13 December 2011

The Meetup Tortilla Experiment

Un informe cómico sobre el resultado de un concurso de tortillas de patata en el que perdí :)

The Meetup Tortilla Experiment

Background: Tortilla (scientific name: "tortilla de patata") is a dish based on a mixture of eggs, potatoes and onions, not to be confused with the Mexican tortilla, based on a wheat or corn dough. Although some local experts do claim the opposite (see "Spanish cuisine: myth or reality?"), most scientists agree that tortilla can be considered a representative dish in the Spanish cuisine. As everything else in Spain, the recipe and approach to making tortilla has been passed from generation to generation, and every cook claims their own is the best. In this study we perform a blind experiment to try to establish a clear winner among two expert Spanish cooks.

Materials and Methods: A full laboratory was set up by a British designer in a neutral environment (San Mateo, California) under a fake potluck that served as an excuse to attract volunteers for the experiment. Twenty-four cooks from a representative sample of European countries were selected, after showing their passport and a signed copy of a recipe to the referee. The volunteers were asked to try both tortillas and pick a color card that represented the tortilla they liked the most. In the middle of the process, tortillas and cards were swapped to minimize dishonest suggestions and bribes from both cooks and selected participants. After the referee made sure all participants had tried both tortillas, the number of cards were counted to establish a clear winner. (Note: the experimental set-up complied with California law: yellow and red cards were kindly donated by the referee from a previous experiment, and the cards were subsequently reused again for a game).

Results: After revealing the secret color codes from the blind experiment, results showed that 65% of the volunteers preferred tortilla "B" (yellow cards), and 30% preferred tortilla "P" (red cards). 5% of the participants were lost in the process. On average, participants employed 17.5 percent more time, and drank 0.23 liters of extra wine when tasting tortilla "B". When chewing tortilla "P", participants showed a smile on their faces. However, when chewing tortilla "B", participants seemed concentrated on the force they needed to apply to their jaws. After the results were made public cook "P" was sent to do the dishes, and some people (mainly cook "B", and some others) cruelly asked for public humiliation.

Limitations: Both cooks employed dirty strategies to attract the attention to their tortilla, and one of them even tried to bribe participants. In the middle of the process, the number of yellow cards grew exponentially, especially after a subject from an unclear nationality interfered in the process, previously knowing the secret color codes. Only taste, but not swallowing time, or amount of drunk liquid were considered relevant for the results.

Conclusions: After eliminating all subjective factors and contaminated votes from participants, results could not be distinguished from a completely random vote, showing that there is no scientific evidence that tortilla "B" was better than tortilla "P". However, most participants did strongly believe so, emotions arose, and the cook who lost was even asked to write a public humiliation letter in the Meetup group, confirming that peer pressure, especially when strong leaders are involved, can quickly spread cruelty among individuals. A conclusion that is in good agreement with the one presented in the Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971, and suggests that no further competitions should be performed in future Meetups.

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