A social experiment is a type of research.
In fields like psychology and sociology, scientists are seeing how people behave in certain situations and respond to particular policies or programs.
They divide individuals into two groups. Active participants, those who take action in an event, and respondents, those who react to the action, often who are unaware they’re part of the experiment.
The goal, of course, is to monitor how human beings act in groups. And to observe how behavior is affected by social burdens and pressures.
Now, from a more colloquial standpoint, social experiment has also become the de facto phrase for any informal effort to see how people react to something. The internet popularized and democratized this phenomenon into a widespread cultural practice, starting in the nineties. Which likely resulted from the advent of gonzo journalism in the sixties and seventies.
These social experiments are simpler, unscientific and less rigorous. People essentially choose a situation, immerse themselves in the events and people involved, and then publish media about their internal experience of external events.
When I started wearing a nametag every day back in college, just to see what happened, that was a social experiment. Still is to this day, even twenty years later. Naturally, it’s not controlled with tests requiring a complex apparatus overseen by scientists that hope to discover new data about subatomic particles.
More simply, my sticky social experiment is a personal and informal natural comparison. My hypothesis is that when I change one rule in the universe, a single person wearing a sticker on his chest all the time, it will have material impact on both the interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamic. The nametag shifts the relationship I have with other people, and also with myself.
Like anytime I purchase a cup of coffee. The barista rings up my order, but instead of having to ask me for a first name to scribble on the side of the cup, she simply looks my nametag and chuckles to herself, well, that sure makes my job easier. Scott, enjoy your quadruple espresso.
As a result of this exchange, I feel seen, special, serviced, and connected.
That’s the social experiment. It happens to me every single day, usually multiples times a day.
But what’s fascinating about my little laboratory is, it’s the opposite of many of the other social experiments you might read about.
Like the guy who ate nothing but fast food for a month and made a documentary about it. Or the journalist who attempted to follow all of the rules in the bible every day for a year.
Those are both fascinating stories. The difference is, in those kinds of social experiments, the participant was the variable. They were the ones who did the changing. Their body or mind was the factor being manipulated for or measured.
My nametag is the opposite, since the sticker makes me the constant. It never changes. The nametag is the same color, same name, same design, same location on my shirt, all day, every day, for over two decades. Which means the variable is the rest of the world. The real data comes from other people. My observations are based around doing the exact same informal thing all the time, and observing how people react to it, and how it makes me feel.
Here’s another example.
Manhattan isn’t what you would call the friendliest city. People here aren’t mean or antisocial, necessarily, they’re merely goal oriented. They have somewhere important to be, they’re likely running late, so you better get the hell out of their way.
As such, the likelihood of a random stranger on a city street noticing my nametag and going out of their way to greet me is statistically low. It simply doesn’t happen that much in this city, solely because of the speed, size and decibel level of my surroundings.
The only exception is when I’m traveling through midtown, which has the highest density of tourists. In that part of town, people will engage with my nametag quite often. Funny how a few city blocks can shift the interpersonal dynamic.
That’s what continues to intrigue me about the experiment. My nametag becomes this barometer for the world around me. Based on how the people interact with it tells me exactly where I am. It’s ironic, but the nametag actually tells me more about others than it does about me.
Kind of like an analog geopositioning device. It alerts me with these feelings and sensations and conversations that essentially say, please note, you have just entered a certain type of neighborhood. You are now traveling in this kind of city with this type of culture.
I remember years ago, while working at an advertising agency, my coworkers and I took a cab across river to make a pitch to one of our clients. As we stood outside our office waiting for the car, dozens of commuters walked past us.
As expected, none of them engaged with my tag. They probably didn’t even notice it, considering my sticker was like, the eleventh weird thing they’d seen that day.
But the astonishing thing was, the moment we got out of the cab and started walked towards our destination, people were saying hello left and right. And my coworkers were bewildered. They kept looking at me like, dude, did you used to live here or something? Why does everybody in this part of town know you?
And that’s the punchline. I’d. never been to that city before in my life. Hoboken was less than four miles away from our office, and yet, that minor geographic displacement was the variable in the experiment. I changed nothing about my behavior, my appearance or my attitude.
Same person as before, same nametag as before. I was the constant, the active participant observing the respondents who were unaware they were part of the social experiment.
Wow, is it windy in here, or did I just blow your mind?
Let me reiterate for the record, I am not a scientist. I scored terribly on science in highschool in college. And I don’t claim to have accurate data for anything I’ve ever done in my life.
But when you run a single social experiment for over twenty years, day in and day out, you can’t help but notice patterns. You can’t help but learn how the world works. It’s not a superpower, it’s just a lens.
What’s your nametag? Are you keeping records of how people react to something?
If not, it’s worth trying out from time to time. Making personal and informal natural comparisons is a wonderful way to learn about yourself and others.
I highly recommend you choose some situation and immerse yourself in the events and people involved. Make yourself the constant and the world the variable. And better yet, document your internal experience of those external events.
You don’t eve don’t share that content with anyone. Doing so will exponentially increase your experiential learning, giving you access to untapped wellsprings of joy.
And sure, you may get a few strange looks on the subway or occasionally attract the attention of intoxicated vagrants.
But in the words of the great physicist, nature does not depend on us, we are not the only experiment.
If that’s the case, we may as well volunteer ourselves as subjects.
LET ME ASK YA THIS…
What happens if you change just one rule in the universe?