My Foo10 session–Secrets of human nature: 5 experiments you can do with strangers

Below are rough unedited notes from the session I did at Foo today.

About me:

-I make things out of words (stories, explanations), and really the main thing I’m always trying to do is show you something that was invisible to you before. I do this as a fiction writer (just finished first novel), that’s what art is all about. And I do it as a teacher at ITP. I’m also an interactive copywriter.

-I teach about individual social dynamics and relational technology. one lens is intimacy, another is stranger behavior. So I’m sort of a people hacker.

-My classes are a mix of studying existing knowledge and doing field experiments—it’s like Human Nature Lab.

About the experiments:

The premise of all this, why you’d want to do these experiments in the first place is that human nature doesn’t really work how we tend to think of it as working. -human nature is not immutable. When we encounter something that we attribute to human nature, we’re actually engaging in what’s known as situated cognition.

-what we see as human nature is contingent and contextual. It happens in specific places, at specific times of day, under specific lighting conditions and in particular weather, just to name a few variables.

-it’s intersubjective and participatory. Human nature has to do with negotiations in a social field.

What that means is that you can read all you want about human nature—and there’s a lot of amazing, fascinating work that’s been done. Data, studies, ethnography, controlled experiments. But my proposition is you can’t really understand it unless you get down there and muck around in it.

So here are six ways to get started doing that. One important note is these all need to be iterated, can’t run just once.

The Experiments

1. Observing people and unwritten rules

This is the training level in the game. It’s like professional-grade peoplewatching. you go somewhere where there are a lot of people and turn off all your devices. You get a notebook and a pen. You take notes. You could do this with a camera too, but you’ll still need to take notes. You sit for at least an hour in the same spot. Ideally you do it again somewhere else, too. You write down everything you observe, and you look for things you wouldn’t ordinarily track.

You are learning about how people ‘read’ each other.

-what are people wearing, how do they look

-how do they use their bodies

-how do they negotiate the space they’re in, each other

Task A: See if you can find 3 ‘unwritten rules’ about the place from the way people are behaving? Hint: you’ll see these the most clearly when they’re violated. My fave is “civil inattention.”

Task B: explore how we read individuals—how we make inferences about them. Strangers are stories with holes in them. Pick 3 people. What stories are you inventing about these people. a story can be as simple as ‘she’s rich.’ Then figure out what details about the person/people gave you that impression. If she’s rich, it might be how well-cared for her skin looks, or her posture, or her clothing, or her attitude toward others. You also might be wrong. Extra points if you go up and ask people to confirm or deny your stories. I’ve never had a student do this, by the way. (it’s an unwritten rule)

Lastly, pay attention to how you feel doing this. You’re staring, and you’re not supposed to. Are people noticing? What happens when they do? Are you uncomfortable? Are you making people uncomfortable? Are you enjoying that? Learn about your own comfort with violating boundaries. Ok, so now, here’s the real game. It’s a series of designed interactions with strangers, and what’s special about all of them is they are interruptions in the expected social field. I believe strongly that kind of interruption is a specific and craved pleasure, type of connection. It’s also a perfect laboratory.

#2 Are you out of my league

This one is a doozy. You go up to someone on the street, or in a more sedentary public place, and you ask them this question: “Are you out of my league?”

This is really hard to do. Let me reassure you that most people are pretty polite about the whole thing. You can make some choices here. You can tell people it’s an experiment, an assignment (I’ve found that students choose not to do this). So I did this with my class, how many of you would feel comfortable with doing this? You’re going to do this a bunch of times. So choose some people of the same sex and some of the opposite. Choose some people who are alone and some who are with others. Choose some people who are your age and some who are older (younger is asking for trouble, but you are on your own recognizance). Ask some people who you think might answer yes, and some people who you are pretty sure will answer no. Pay attention to what happens after they answer the question. That’s a moment where something called leavetaking rights and exit strategies are really confusing. More awkwardness. Learn from it.

#3 Walk with me

More awkwardness: ask someone if you can walk with them. This is great—and sort of harrowing—when it’s a no-exit situation, like the walking path across a bridge. But you can just stop someone at an intersection and ask if you can walk with them for a few blocks—as long as you give an endpoint. The really butch thing is not to give a reason, but you can say it’s an experiment if you want to. The point is forced conversation for a set interval. You give someone a structure, they’re more likely to participate. Ask questions, or be quiet and let the other person fill in the space—that’s always an awkward and often successful strategy. You’re learning how people negotiate ‘street intimacy’ and how they have a different orientation toward it when they know it’s constrained.

#4 True confession

Your task is to ask at least 5 people to answer a question on video (you have to get at least 5, you may get turned down a few times). What happens on the street when you ask these kinds of questions can be incredibly honest—or awkward, someone who doesn’t want to be honest—in any case it creates a space for honesty. Very different than unsolicited confession. It’s something that isn’t already on a person’s mind, not part of their loop.

Here and here are some of my students’ videos, answering the question “What are you afraid of?”

There’s a trick to formulating a question. Questions: Better to engage imagination than memory. So not, what was the last thing you thought of before you fell asleep (which is a super appealing question). Ppl get hung up on the remembering, the accuracy. And not too open ended. Can have some specificity—[eg]. What brought you here/what keeps you here [in nyc] What did you do today What’s your earliest memory What’s your most precious possession What was the last thing you thought about before sleep What’s the closest you’ve been to famous If you were to get famous, what would it be for What makes you get up in the morning What are you afraid of What would you tell your 10-yr old self What sense would you give up if you had to choose one

#5 Ask for Help

A little background. In 1964 a woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered outside her apartment building in Queens. She screamed a lot, for a relatively long time. It was reported that 38 neighbors heard or saw this happening and nobody called the police (that turned out not to be completely true, but it was the public story). After that a lot of sociologists and psychologists started doing immense amounts of research on the ‘Bystander Effect,’ which is that your impulse to help is inversely proportional to how many people you think are also available to help.

I’m not going to make you pretend to be murdered. You’re just going to ask for directions. This is iterative. And you have to put your iphone out of view.

-Ask for directions.

-If you get directions, as the person to draw a map.

-If you get a map, ask for their phone number in case you get lost.

-If you get a phone number, call it. I’ve only ever had one student actually make the call.

Like before, do this 5-10 times, and use varied targets. You’re experiencing people’s willingness to help, and also you’re encountering people using their cheater detections systems. Also, you’re lying and inconveniencing people. How’s that feel?

Below are some other experiments for advanced users & some cultural data.

This is pulled from: Levine, R. V. (2003). Measuring helping behavior across cultures.

Other experiments.

Retrieving a dropped pen. The experimenter (a neatly dressed college age male), walking at a moderate pace, would reach into his pocket and “accidentally,” without appearing to notice, drop his pen behind him, and continue walking. In each city, we observed the number of occasions a passing pedestrian helped the experimenter retrieve the pen.

Hurt leg. Walking with a heavy limp and wearing a large and clearly visible leg brace (the ugliest ones we could find), the experimenter “accidentally” dropped, and then unsuccessfully struggling to reach down for, a pile of magazines. What proportion of approaching pedestrians offered assistance?

Blind person crossing the street. An experimenter wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane acted the role of a blind person needing help getting across the street.1 We measured the percentage of instances in which help was offered.

Change for a Quarter. With a quarter in full view, the experimenter approached a pedestrian passing in the opposite direction and asked politely for change for a quarter. We observed how many pedestrians in each city stopped to check for change.

Lost Letter. A neat hand-written note, “I found this next to your car,” was placed on a stamped envelope addressed to the experimenter’s home. The envelope was then left on the windshield of a randomly selected car parked at a meter in a main shopping area. How many of these letters arrived at the address?

Examples of cross-cultural mis-translations.

Change: “In Kiev, RUSSIA, where pickpockets are rampant, visitors are warned to never open their purse or wallet on the street.” “Between monetary inflation and the use of pre-paid telephone cards, however, we learned that the need for particular coins has become virtually extinct in many countries. In Tel Aviv, for example, no one seemed to understand why a person would need small change. In Calcutta, our experimenter had difficulty finding anyone with small value bills and coins–a general shortage which occurs all over India during some festival seasons. In Buenos Aires, we wondered how to score the response of a person who replied, “I don’t even have for myself.’”

Lost letter: “The first problem we encountered was people literally running away from the letters in some cities. In Tel Aviv, in particular, where unclaimed packages have all too often turned out to contain bombs, our experimenter found people actively avoiding the suspicious looking envelopes. In El Salvador, our experimenter was informed about a scam going around in which people were intentionally dropping letters; when innocent samaritans picked one up, the con man told them they had lost the letter, that it contained money, and demanded the money back. Not surprisingly, very few letters were returned in El Salvador.”

I’ve told you a little bit about my experiments with strangers. I’m obsessed with this, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but I wanted to give you a taste of what’s going on in my stranger research. I’d love to hear your stories if you have them, come find me.

Hashtag: #strangerresearch

Syllabus for my ITP class “When Strangers Meet”


5 Responses to “My Foo10 session–Secrets of human nature: 5 experiments you can do with strangers”

  1. 1 Evan Cordes June 28, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    The second stranger in the first video you linked is a friend of mine. Now *that* was a surprise.

  2. 2 Kio June 29, 2010 at 12:05 am

    Whoa. Also I was going to look you up when we were in SF for the evening, but I conked out at like 8pm instead. Next time!

  3. 3 Evan Cordes July 3, 2010 at 3:42 am

    I fully approve of conking out at 8pm when needed. And Foo Camp seems like it would to that to you. Next time!

  4. 4 neo September 30, 2010 at 1:24 am

    Have you seen Lenka Clayton’s work? Check out the description of her video Hello at:

    And here she discusses some of her other projects:

  5. 5 Kio September 30, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Thanks, I’d not seen this work before, it’s great!

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