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.
In these journalistic experiments, the prank always lurks just beneath the surface and is clearly part of the genre’s appeal. During ABC Primetime’s experiments, there always comes the moment when host John Quiñones enters and, with a soothing voice and congenial smile, ends the ruse. These people are actors. You have been part of an experiment. And in that moment, no matter how serious the scenario, there is always the hint of a practical joke revealed, a touch of “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”
Sometimes the experiment is overwhelmed by the prank. Last year, Radar Magazine sent a reporter to snort confectioner’s sugar in various New York City locales. The idea was to test anecdotal evidence from a New York Times article that cocaine use was growing more publicly acceptable. (The results: public snorting was actively discouraged at the New York Public Library’s main reading room, but not at a Starbucks or Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn.) Carter’s own Spy Magazine pulled a classic prank/experiment in the late eighties when it sent checks of dwindling value to moguls in an attempt to determine who was the cheapest millionaire. (Donald Trump reportedly cashed one for just thirteen cents.) Even Borat was, in a sense, an extended experiment in the extremes to which a Kazakh “journalist” could push pliant Americans, and was anticipated by one of Primetime’s “What Would You Do?” episodes in which a taxi driver goes off on racist or homophobic rants, baiting riders either to defy him or join in.
If Medina, the Times reporter, was made uneasy by the whiff of “stunt” in the subway experiment, she is not the only one. Even Weingarten, whose Joshua Bell experiment was a monumental success, looks at the genre slightly askance. Asked whether he plans to conduct similar experiments in the future, he replies: “If I can think of one this good, there’s no reason I’d quail at it. But, you know, you also don’t want to go off and be the stunt writer. I would need to feel as though the next thing I’m doing was of equal sociological importance. And this wasn’t just a lark. We had something we wanted to examine, and it was the nature of the perception of beauty.”