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. “Milgram could have done an authority experiment in which he got people to do all sorts of strange things that didn’t seem to be simulating the death of the participant.” Many contemporary social psychologists credit researchers from this fertile era with cleverly demonstrating how frequently human behavior defies expectations. But others, such as Joachim Krueger of Brown University, argue that the experiments were designed in ways that guaranteed unflattering results. “You could call it a ‘gotcha psychology,’” 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. Unlike investigative journalism, these experiments have largely flown under the ethical radar. This may be because of the fact that, while some journalistic experiments may be frivolous, they are on balance innocuous. However, as experimenters increasingly tackle sensitive topics, they have begun to draw some heat. In 2006, conservative bloggers accused Dateline of trying to manufacture a racist incident by bringing a group of Arab-looking men to a NASCAR race. And, last November, these same bloggers ripped an experiment by Primetime in which same-sex couples engaged in public displays of affection in Birmingham, Alabama, for attempting to provoke homophobic reactions. (As of press time, the same-sex segment had not yet aired, but according to the Fox affiliate in Birmingham, which broke the story, Birmingham police received several complaints from people disgusted by the sight of two men kissing in public.)
But what of the oft-cited “rule” that journalists should report the news rather than make it? Michael Kinsley, who conducted a 1985 experiment while at The New Republic to determine whether the Washington, D.C., elite actually read the books they act like they have, rejects the premise. “If you’ve got no other way to get a good story,” he says, “and you’re not being dishonest in what you write and publish, what’s wrong with it?” Kinsley’s experiment involved slipping notes deep into fashionable political books at several D.C. bookstores, offering $5 to anyone who called an intern at the magazine. In five months, not a single person claimed the reward.
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.”