A Freakonomics podcast reports on the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which consenting adults were temporarily deprived of their social structure. They were imprisoned in a fake prison as inmates or guards, with such vicious and inhumane results that a two-week experiment had to be canceled after six days. The findings remind me of the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib.
But here is where it gets interesting. The podcast goes on to compare that prison study from 40 years ago to Sleep No More, a play currently running in New York City. After voluntarily parting with their wallets, purses and cell phones and promising to wear masks and not talk, theatergoers mingle among mute actors and elaborate props on six floors of a former warehouse. This is the DIY present-day experiment in social behavior.
There are many examples of removing of people from their usual and customary surroundings, both in fiction and real life. Violent examples include William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the lynch mob. These are the most dramatic social paradigm shifts. They are potent snapshots in a continuum of rudimentary social structure that – like a magnifying glass in sunlight – can motivate a mob to consider murder.
We practice less violent context removal on an individual basis all the time. Besides attending Sleep No More in the warehouse, we do such things as experiencing abstract art, science fiction, and exotic travel.
The behavior of humans who are the most social of mammals is largely dependent on context. Profound change in social context is what motivational trainers call “breaking the mold”. I will give an example: Psychological studies demonstrate that people are far less persuaded to quit smoking after reading warning labels than they are when severe smoking restrictions make them feel like social pariahs.
When you break the mold by going outside your familiar social environment, or re-cast your identity even temporarily by wearing a mask or Halloween costume, you often make startling revelations and discover a different person.