Social Experiments

 The idea of social experiments is something I find interesting.  That we can engineer a setting and personal interactions to drive a particular result from others or even ourselves is compelling and a tool we should consider leveraging in our daily experiences.

I once read about a grad student studying psychology who decided to conduct her own social experiment on a tenant in an apartment unit she managed.  The renter was a small town handy man and her experiment was to see how he would react if she treated him cruelly.  After several months of this abuse, he bludgeoned her to death with a hammer.  Tragically, though no less ironic, she got exactly what she asked for even if not entirely what she wanted.

And that, I think, is what makes the idea of social experimentation so interesting.  You may be able to directionally ascertain the outcome but the specifics are impossible to predict.  In that you are dealing with real live people, the outcomes will vary and depending upon the nature of the testing, the results can be very real and impactful.

A few years ago during a particularly gloomy period in my career –a couple down months over the course of nearly a decade and a half is no exception – I concocted a sort of psychological experiment as it related to my job, or at least a job I would have welcomed in that moment.

At the time, I was travelling 4 days a week every week and had been doing so for many years.  I had spent too many nights alone in hotel rooms and cabs and airplanes.  During this particular stretch, there were too many mornings I simply wanted to stay in the hotel room rather than deal with another day of client interactions.

And thus was born my Twilight Zone-like scenario. 

Consider a job where your only responsibility is to show up.  You are in at 8am and out at 5pm.  Noon is lunch and there are scheduled 10 minute breaks at 10 and 3.  Your work site is a standard room in a nice but not opulent hotel.  It is a one year opportunity and pays twice your current income at bi-weekly intervals.  Your only responsibility is to show up.

You must show up every day and be present all day because one day the phone will ring and your lone responsibility is to answer it on the second ring.

The call may come 10 minutes into day one or just as your contract is about to expire.  The call could come in April or October.

Fail to answer the call and you forfeit the gig and must repay all the income you’ve collected to that point.


Chew on that for a moment, it sounds easy… or impossible, once you finish the thought.


Now it would be dime-store to parallel this to our daily lives in terms of just showing up being half battle and being ready to answer the bell when it rings.  That is too easy.

We talked earlier about engineering situations to influence others or even ourselves.  Surely that works for mindsets as well, right?

Think this through, if this were your job you certainly would attend each day and look for ways to perform.  But you’d likely also be wary of how you spent the money.  Twice your regular income is compelling because it invites extravagant spending.  But if you feared the risk of having to return it, you’d likely be more thoughtful in your short term save vs. spend decisions.

Admittedly the parallel is not 1:1 but this is social experiment and not linear math.  In the experiment we can easily recognize the significance of delaying the pleasure promised by the enhanced income.  Then why is it so tough to grasp this same concept in our normal daily lives?  Twice the income is a compelling metric because the average person wastes roughly half their take home pay in monthly debt obligations and other reckless spending habits, most of which might be eliminated within 12 months given appropriate discipline.

Now that starts to sound interesting if you’re piecing it together correctly.  In the experiment you might earn twice your current salary (half of which is likely already obligated to debt or poor habits), for a defined timeframe.  However, in the real life facsimile the same year of discipline can set free half your disposable income in perpetuity.

As an added bonus, consider the game again and a successful outcome.  If, when you picked up the line, the voice on the other end asked a single question whose answer might allow you to double yet again your payout.  Given days and weeks, even months and countless hours to fill, how would you honestly answer the question – “what have you accomplished in this time?”

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