YouTube: Where you can experiment on humans as much as you like

Over the course of human history, some of the most memorable experiments are those that we wouldn’t be allowed to conduct nowadays. As with most things, regulation eventually catches up with dubious real-world practices, and loopholes are closed. The experiments undertaken before the door closed tend to become the stuff of infamy, though: Milgram’s experiment in obedience and the Stanford Prison Experiment are both taught in mainstream psychology courses. Part of their appeal is that they’re now forbidden.

As a quick recap, Milgram’s experiment showed that participants were prepared to deliver painful electric shocks to others when someone in authority told them to do so (although those seemingly in pain were actually actors). As you can see in the video below, despite their best instincts, some of the participants continued administering shocks to what would have been lethal levels.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, on the other hand, involved a group of participants being randomly divided into guards and prisoners. Within days, the guards were going well beyond their remit in punishment of the dehumanised prisoners, and the experiment had to be cancelled early.

Of course, there are problems with these. In the former, participants are put through emotional stress without knowing the facts of the situation, and in the latter they were placed in actual danger. The catch-22 is that with the facts supplied or the danger removed, there would be no experiment.

Despite this, the fascination continues. The BBC actually ran a remake of the Stanford Prison Experiment, uncomfortably blending fact and entertainment, and you could argue that reality TV – at least in its early days – was social experimentation, albeit a sanitised version lacking in scientific and educational merit. If you were in any doubt about the blurring of entertainment and science, both Milgram and Zimbardo’s experiments were made into films released this year: The Experimenter and the less originally named Stanford Prison Experiment.milgram_experiment

But like science, television is regulated, and in any case, television’s influence has been shrinking for years. In its place: the unregulated Wild West of YouTube.

The trouble with YouTube

“It’s no coincidence that the majority of popular social experiment videos resemble candid camera pranks more than serious scientific study.”

YouTube has no regulation. How could it? More than 300 hours of footage is uploaded to the site every minute, and that means a lot of questionable content is posted – although most vanishes into obscurity. Recently, however, the blurring of “science” (the inverted commas are essential here) and entertainment that was first kicked off by television has been mimicked by YouTube’s prolific stars – with none of the original’s safeguards in place.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with the current trend for homemade “social experiments”. Sure, some of these are pushing the definition of “social experiment” (“prank” or “sexual harassment” would be more accurate), but a few do seem to fall under this bracket, if you’re feeling generous: how people react to someone threatening to commit suicide, for example, or how people react to walking in on a murder.youtube_social_experiments

Interesting? Sure. Scientific? No. Ethical? Definitely not. Ethical regulations can effectively jettison a social experiment in the serious science world, because should researchers ignore the regulations, then a paper simply won’t be published. No such disincentive exists on YouTube, where ad revenue and fame are the drivers of innovation and progress. It’s the Wild West, and it’s no coincidence that the majority of popular social experiment videos resemble candid camera pranks more than serious scientific study.

On paper these may appear to be interesting pop-science studies, but at best they’re cheerful distractions – and at worst they’re worryingly unethical and misleading. Nothing illustrates this better than the recent case of Adrian Gee, an Australian YouTuber with almost 215,000 subscribers. A viral video of his was labelled as a social experiment, and what it seemed to show was shocking. In the film, Gee poses as a blind man asking for change from a $5 note, but proffering a $50. The film seems to catch several unscrupulous types not telling Gee and pocketing the money themselves.

But then Australia’s Today Tonight show exposed that Gee had hired actors for his “experiment”. In an extra layer of unethical behaviour, one of the actors involved alleges he wasn’t informed of the film’s usage, and has faced harsh judgements from friends and family who recognised his unique scars. To date, the original video has notched up more than two million views.

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