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.”
The appeal of the best journalistic experiments, indeed, runs much deeper than their entertainment value. Medina 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.” And Weingarten received over one hundred messages from people who said that his piece on the Bell experiment made them cry. (One testimonial from an online chat Weingarten had with readers: “I cried because I find it scary and depressing to think of how obliviously most people go through daily life, even smart and otherwise attentive people. Who knows what beautiful things I’ve missed by just hurrying along lost in my thoughts?”) In essence, many readers imagined themselves as actors in the story. Weingarten set out to chronicle an experiment; he ended up writing a deeply effective profile of his own readers. “What Would You Do?” asks Primetime—and that, on some level, is the question that all such journalistic experiments ask. Would you walk by the famous violinist? Would you give up your seat on the subway? Would you protect a woman from an abusive boyfriend?
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.
Stanley Milgram, the designer of the subway-seat experiment, was one of the most creative social psychologists of that era. His infamous obedience experiment, first performed in 1961, in which subjects were instructed to shock a man in a separate room every time he gave an incorrect answer on a memory test, showed that normal people were capable of great cruelty. Sixty-five percent of the subjects went to the maximum—450 volts—despite the test-taker’s cries of pain and pleas to be released due to a heart condition. By the end, the test-taker no longer responded at all, having presumably passed out or died. (In reality, the test-taker was an actor and his protests tape-recorded.) Even more unsettling was Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 prison experiment, in which college students randomly assigned to play the role of guards in a mock prison terrorized those playing inmates. Slated to run for two weeks, it was terminated after six days, during which several “prisoners” came close to nervous breakdown.