Daniel Weiss has a fantastic essay, titled “What Would You Do?: The Journalism that Tweaks Reality, then Reports What Happens,” in a recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. His essay surveys a broad range of journalistic experiments—ranging from the sensationalistic to the profound, some executed in collaboration with social psychologists and some by journalists flying solo—and argue that they are essentially homages (conscious or not) to experiments conducted by such “golden age” social psychologists as Stanley Milgram and Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo. Weiss also explores the appeal and scientific merits of those journalistic experiments. The essay is well worth reading in its entirety. For those interested in a sampler, we offer some representative excerpts below.
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On a Friday morning last January, a group of Washington, D.C., commuters played an unwitting role in an experiment. As they emerged from the L’Enfant Plaza metro station, they passed a man playing a violin. Dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt, baseball cap, and jeans, an open case for donations at his feet, he looked like an ordinary busker. In reality, he was Joshua Bell, an internationally renowned musician. The idea was to gauge whether Bell’s virtuosic playing would entice the rushing commuters to stop and listen.The experiment’s mastermind was Washington Post staff writer Gene Weingarten, who had dreamed it up after seeing a talented keyboardist be completely ignored as he played outside another metro station. . . .
For three-quarters of an hour, Bell played six pieces, including some of the most difficult and celebrated in the classical canon. Of 1,097 passersby, twenty-seven made donations totaling just over $30. Seven stopped for more than a minute. The remaining 1,070 breezed by, barely aware of the supremely talented violinist in their midst. [See video below.]
When Weingarten’s account of the experiment ran in the Post’s magazine three months later, readers followed the narrative with rapt attention that contrasted starkly with the indifference of the commuters. The article was discussed on blogs and other forums devoted to classical music, pop culture, politics, and social science [For a previous Situtionist post on this experiment, click here.]
Weingarten said he received more feedback from readers than he had for any other article he had written in his thirty-five-year career. Many were taken with the chutzpah of disguising Joshua Bell as a mendicant just to see what would happen. Others were shocked that people could ignore a world-class musician. Still others argued that the results were insignificant: rerun the experiment outdoors on a sunny day, they said, and Bell would draw a massive crowd.
I was one of those rapt readers, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the piece’s appeal. Was it just a clever gimmick or was there something more profound going on? At the same time, the story felt familiar. Indeed, Weingarten’s experiment was a recent entry in a journalistic genre with deep, quirky roots.
Working on a hunch that begs to be tested or simply struck with an idea for a good story, journalistic “experimenters,” for lack of a better term, step out of their customary role as observers and play with reality to see what will happen. At their worst, these experiments are little more than variations on reality-TV operations that traffic in voyeurism and shame. At their best, they manage to deliver discussion-worthy insights into contemporary society and human nature. The very best, perhaps, serve up a bit of both. In any case, the growing number of journalists and news operations who do this sort of thing are heirs to a brand of social psychology practiced from the postwar years through the early seventies. During this period, considered by some the golden age of the discipline, experiments were bold and elaborately designed and frequently produced startling results. Many were conducted outside the laboratory and often placed subjects in stressful or disturbing situations.
These experiments also have roots in forms of investigative, immersion, and stunt journalism that have been practiced for more than a century. In 1887, while working on an exposé of asylum conditions, muckraker Nellie Bly demonstrated that one could feign insanity to gain admission to a madhouse—and when she began to insist that she was in fact perfectly sane, doctors interpreted her claims as delusions. In so doing, Bly anticipated psychologist David Rosenhan’s classic 1972 experiment in which “pseudopatients” claiming to hear voices were admitted to psychiatric hospitals and then kept for an average of several weeks despite reverting to sane behavior.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the genre shifted, but by 1974, when New York City’s WNBC-TV asked its viewers to call in and pick the perpetrator of a staged purse snatching from a lineup of suspects, the journalistic experiment had attained its modern form. The station was flooded with calls and, after fielding over 2,100, cut the experiment short. The results: respondents picked the correct assailant no more frequently than they would have by guessing.
Over the last decade, as best-sellers such as The Tipping Point and Freakonomics have lent social science a sheen of counterintuitive hipness and reality television has tapped into a cultural fascination with how people behave in contrived situations, journalistic experimentation has become increasingly common. In addition to The Washington Post Magazine, it has been featured in The New York Times, Harper’s, and Reader’s Digest. Its most regular home, however, has been on network-television newsmagazines.
ABC’s Primetime has staged a series of experiments in recent years under the rubric “What Would You Do?” which enact provocative scenarios while hidden cameras capture the reactions of the public. Chris Whipple, the producer who conceived the series, refers to it as a “Candid Camera of ethics.” Starting with a nanny verbally abusing a child, the series has gone on to present similar scenarios: an eldercare attendant ruthlessly mocking an old man; a group of adolescents bullying a chubby kid; a man viciously berating his girlfriend, seeming on the verge of violence; etc.
The sequences tend to begin with the narrator pointing out that many pass right by the incident. Several witnesses are confronted and asked to explain why they didn’t step in. One man, who gave the fighting couple a long look before continuing on his way, reveals that he is an off-duty cop and says he determined that no laws were being broken, so there was nothing for him to do. The focus shifts to those who did intervene, and the camera lingers over the confrontations, playing up the drama.
These experiments are, in a sense, the flip side of the reality-TV coin: rather than show how people act in manufactured situations when they know they’re being watched, they show us how people act when they don’t. . . .
In the world of print, Reader’s Digest has come closest to making such experiments a franchise. Over the last two years, the magazine has pitted cities around the world against each other in tests of helpfulness and courtesy, to determine which city is most hospitable. The first round used the following three gauges to separate the rude from the solicitous in thirty-five cities: the percentage of people who picked up papers dropped by an experimenter; the percentage who held the door for experimenters when entering buildings; and the percentage of clerks who said “Thank you” after a sale. When the scores were tallied, it was clear that Reader’s Digest had hit the counterintuition jackpot: the winner was New York City. . . .
The notion that New Yorkers are more polite than commonly believed was also at the center of a 2004 experiment conducted by The New York Times. Reenacting an experiment originally performed by graduate students of social psychologist Stanley Milgram at the City University of New York in the early seventies, two Times reporters asked riders on crowded subway cars to relinquish their seats. Remarkably, thirteen of fifteen did so. But the reporters found that crossing the unspoken social boundaries of the subway came at a cost: once seated, they grew tense, unable to make eye contact with their fellow passengers. Jennifer Medina, one of the reporters, says that she and Anthony Ramirez, her partner on the story, found the assignment ludicrous at first. “It was like, ‘What? Really? You want me to do what?’” she says. “We made so much fun of it while we were doing it, but we got so much feedback. It was one of those stories that people really talked about.” And papers around the world took notice: within weeks, reporters in London, Glasgow, Dublin, and Melbourne had repeated the experiment. [To read the Times article, click here.]
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The appeal of the best journalistic experiments . . . runs much deeper than their entertainment value. Medina [the Times reporter] came to see her role in the subway experiment as that of a “street anthropologist or something, which is essentially what [reporters] are supposed to be doing every day.” . . .
In that quirky, postwar “golden age” of the discipline that informs today’s journalistic experimenters, researchers captured the public imagination with bold, elaborately choreographed experiments that frequently drove subjects to extreme behavior or confronted them with seemingly life-or-death situations.
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Given the dramatic nature of these experiments, it’s little wonder they’ve provided such inspiration to journalists. Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s, started the flash mobs trend in 2003 as an homage to Milgram, whom he considers as much performance artist as scientist. Flash mobs were spontaneous gatherings in which participants showed up at a given location for a brief period and did something absurd, such as drop to their knees en masse before a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex at Toys “R” Us. In a piece published in Harper’s, Wasik explained that he saw the mobs as a Milgram-esque test of hipster conformity. Like a hot new indie band, he hypothesized, the mobs would rapidly gain popularity before being discarded as too mainstream and, ultimately, co-opted by marketers, which is more or less what happened.
Wasik argues that the popular resonance of experiments by Milgram and others of the golden age derives from the compelling narratives they created. “It’s like a demonstration whose value is more in the extremes that you can push people to and the extremes of the story that you can get out of what people do or don’t do,” he says. . . .
Due in part to the rise of ethical concerns, contemporary social psychologists rarely do experiments that take place outside the laboratory or that involve deception or stressful situations. This has left journalistic experimenters as a sort of lost tribe of devotees of the golden-age social psychologists. . . .
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Journalistic experiments have been criticized far more consistently for their scientific, rather than ethical, shortcomings. Robert Cialdini, an Arizona State University social psychologist, believes strongly in the value of communicating psychological insights via the media, but he has found that journalists don’t always value the same material that he does. For a 1997 Dateline segment on conformity, he conducted an experiment showing that the number of people who donated to a New York City subway musician multiplied eightfold when others donated before them. A fascinating result, but even more fascinating to Cialdini was that people explained their donations by saying that they liked the song, they had some spare change, or they felt sorry for the musician. These explanations did not end up in the finished program. “To me, that was the most interesting thing, the fact that people are susceptible to these social cues but don’t recognize it,” says Cialdini. “I think that’s my bone to pick with journalists—they’re frequently interested in the phenomenon rather than the cause of the phenomenon.”
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So maybe journalists can and should be more careful in how they design experiments, but that debate, in many ways, is beside the point. The best examples of the genre are undeniably good journalism, and the lesser lights, for the most part, amount to innocuous entertainment. Indeed, my hope is that some enterprising reporter is even now hatching a plan to find out whether Joshua Bell really would draw such a big crowd outdoors on a sunny day in D.C.
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