Your Social Experiment is Not Actually a Social Experiment

Monday, September 16, 2013 | 0 Comment(s)

There has been an influx of internet videos recently that begin with a few people, usually white dudes, talking to the camera.  It usually looks like a low budget version of a Mountain Dew commercial.  The dudes are all, "Today we are on campus to conduct a social experiment (glances meaningfully and academically at the camera)  We are going to find out what happens when ______________."

And then they fill in that blank with any of a number of possibilities ranging from the benign ( . . . when I walk around all day in a full chicken costume) to the less acceptable ( . . .  when I go up to pretty girls and kiss them without asking).  This later being a fine example of how white privilege can make even sexual assault seem somehow benign.

And it isn't just stupid college kids and YouTube users.  T.V. shows like Big Brother and what's left of The Real World are based on the same premise: Let's see what transpires when "real" people are put into "real"(manufactured) situations.  Yay, social experiments!!!

I need to tell you all something.  And it's important.  Those videotaped antics are many things: they can be funny, depressing, against the law, eye-opening, and even educational -- but they are not -- by any definition other that the literal one, social experiments.  Here are some ways you can tell the difference for future reference.

First off, real experiments test theories.   Many of my previous examples explain to their audience that they are testing "what will happen when . . ."   That is not a theory.  It is the absence of a theory.  It is an open question.  A theory is an educated guess as to what will happen.  A true social experiment grows out of that educated guess, and is designed specifically to test whether or not what the person postulated would happen is what actually happens "in the real world" (the uncapitalized real world).  The result of all this forethought is that after a real social experiment, you can potentially glean new knowledge based on your findings.  In pseudo-social experiments, the prestige is more of a taadaa! and a smile.  And that is because what your are witnessing is less similar to social science than it is to voyeurism.  Being able to see a person breaking a social norm, even if that social norm is that we don't touch up on strangers, is engaging to watch simply because it's rare and novel.  Television exploits this.

The second, and probably the most crucial and central difference between real social experiments and fakers is captured in three terrifying letters: I.R.B.  IRB stands for Internal Review Board, and for social scientists this can often be a complex and lengthy process.  The IRB's sole purpose, in a perfect world, is to weight the pro's vs. con's inherent to a proposed experiment.  That means adding up all the potential gains in knowledge, understanding, and data against any potential harms that might befall the very real and human study participants.  Any chance of permanent damage to the participants supersedes the need to conduct any and all social research.

It didn't always.  Most people know about the Stanford Prison Experiment or Milgram's Shock Experiment and they say to me, "Matt, if there are such checks and balances regarding participant safety, how the hell did they get away with dangerous crap like that."

It's a great question with a imperfect answer.  That answer is that those scientists got away with harming human participants because back in the early 1960's when those experiment were being conducted, there were no IRB's yet.  In truth, both of those experiments I mentioned were central to understanding the important of having some form of protection for future study volunteers.

Let me give you an idea of what would happen if our friends from "kiss-a-girl-without-permission" submitted their *cough cough* experiment *cough cough* to an IRB.  The first board member would read the thesis statement, "to see what happens when we force kisses on girls who we don't know."  I imagine the next thing that would happen would be a room full of laughter and a lot of murmurs of "that's not an experiment proposal, it's a lawsuit proposal!" Then silence as the true danger of this type of shlock starts to weigh on the committee's moral shoulders.

"Dare I ask how they are testing this," says an imaginary old white professor with a beard who stands on circumstance and procedure and is too noble to simply toss the application out prior to any discussion.

"They're going to videotape themselves forces their kisses on girls in the Campus Center," replies a now completely unamused female poli-sci professor.  "I think that constitutes a pretty significant risk of a negative impact to their participant population.  And I don't think they even sent us whatever form they plan to use to get the informed consent from those unsuspecting women.  (you know, the form you absolutely must have all participants sign before the study, which makes them aware of both the point of the study and any potential negative implications.)

Now the head of the IRB speaks up.  She will make the final call on the issue.  "It seems pretty clear that these boys are asking to see if they can make-out with the collective student body without their permission, and not get in trouble for it.  Not only does this non-study need to be rejected by this committee, these students need to be confronted by us educators to make sure they understand why their proposal is fifty shades of inappropriate and offensive.  Otherwise, we are doing these students a disservice."  

So yah.  It wouldn't pass the sniff test.

And as a social scientist in my down time, it is also particularly offensive in that these libido and adrenaline fueled sexperiments receive all the public airtime due to their salacious nature.  This fascination provides an obtuse vision of social science, but those are the images that persevere.  These vignettes of hot twenty-somethings with drinking problems living together in a palatial estate with unlimited booze, access, and protection are what the public views as a slice of the real world.  Not even close.  Perhaps all the racist nasty things the Big Brother bobble-head contestants spouted this season were a step closer to reality.  But in terms of informed consent, does anyone think those girls were prepared to ruin their lives using hurtful slurs in the corner of their bedroom.  Do we think that other stupid ass people don't also think these horrible thoughts in the privacy of their own homes?

In the same way that i don't believe the pedofiles on To Catch a Predator deserve the national public humiliation piled on top of their very justified arrest and incarceration, it is difficult to rationalize the joy of a racist white girl getting her just desserts over the loss of any human's permanent humiliation.  Sure she signed up for the show and said those stupid hateful puke-able words, but I haven't yet grown jaded enough now to lament her future pain -- captured for all posterity on the internet.

I digress.

Long story short, if you are thinking of conducting a "social experiment" for all of the internet to see, perhaps use an appropriate username like "voyuer4u" or "girlswontkissme" so we don't mistake your masterbatory fantasy of a video as containing any smidgen of useful knowledge.

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