20 June 2008


Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:59 pm

Yesterday Anne and I enjoyed a delightful lunch with a guy we hadn’t seen or had contact with in twenty-five years. He was an assistant professor while I was in grad school, and we co-taught a Social Psychology of Religion course. Denied tenure as the result of a vendetta by the head of my research area, this guy landed on his academic feet, scoring an associate gig at a mid-list department before eventually moving on to full pro at one of the bigs. Now he’s the chair.

Anyhow, back before he lost his tenure battle, this guy served as a proxy presenter at a regional psych conference, standing in for a noted researcher whose health problems made it impossible for him to travel. The presenter had tape-recorded his talk and made a videotape, and my friend played the tape and ran the video. But having a stand-in was more than appropriate for this particular presentation, because the eminent psychologist was Stanley Milgram and his talk was on cyranoids.

Milgram is legendary in for one study, known simply as “The Milgram Experiment.” He also did the “small world experiment,” which entered popular awareness as the “six degrees of separation” meme. But I think the cyranoids was my favorite Milgram scheme.

The name is derived from Cyrano de Bergerac, who helped his friend woo a sweetheart by telling him romantic things to say to her. A “cyranoid,” then, is someone who speaks words that do not originate in his own mind. Milgram conducted a few studies with cyranoids. In one, an 11-year-old boy was interviewed by an adult who was assigned the task of assessing the boy’s intelligence. Unknown to the interviewer, however, the boy was a cyranoid: inside his ear was a wireless receiver. Behind a one-way mirror Milgram listened to the conversation between the woman and the boy. Whenever the woman asked the boy a question, Milgram would speak his answer into a microphone connected to the boy’s earpiece, and the boy would speak Milgram’s words. Milgram, a 50-year-old Yale professor, didn’t play dumb: he answered as if the woman were speaking to him directly Afterward the woman said that she thought the boy was personable and very bright, though not necessarily a genius. She had no idea that the kid wasn’t speaking his own words. The only anomalous slip-up came when Milgram fed the kid a sentence with the word “philosopher” in it; the kid, unfamiliar with the term, said “falafeler” instead.

Another variant involved a college student cyranoid, again engaged in conversation with an unsuspecting stooge. Again Milgram stood behind the one-way mirror; again he conveyed his own words by microphone into the cyranoid’s earpiece. This time though, Milgram stepped away from the microphone partway through the interview and another “Cyrano” took his place. As I recall five different speakers fed lines of spontaneous dialogue to the cyranoid. At the end of the interview the stooge was asked questions about the cyranoid’s personality. The stooge had no difficulty attributing a unifying persona to the cyranoid, who had been channeling five separate personalities during the conversation.



  1. […] – bookmarked by 1 members originally found by alphaecho35 on 2008-11-12 Cyranoids https://ktismatics.wordpress.com/2008/06/20/cyranoids/ – bookmarked by 2 members originally found […]


    Pingback by Bookmarks about Milgram — 20 December 2008 @ 9:00 am

  2. So now, 35 years later, would people still submit to the Milgram Experiment protocol and shock people to unconsciousness just because the experimenter told them to? Here’s the findings.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 January 2009 @ 7:15 am

  3. On a related note, here’s an excerpt from daughter Kenzie’s “NaNoWriMo” novel Progress to Grey:

    Chapter 17

    Getting ten people in a week was considerably easier than Spencer could have anticipated. He had put an advertisement in the local newspaper, giving only a vague description of what volunteers were wanted for, and had received exactly ten phone calls from people who were interested in participating. He told them the address Domino had given him and decided not to go with them, but to watch from the sidelines, not adding himself to their number.

    The building turned out to be a high end hotel, and when he entered, most of them were already there. He positioned himself across the room inconspicuously, watching them, wondering what he had gotten them into. A man wearing a crisp black suit entered from an internal doorway, looked around casually, and made his way over to the waiting participants. Spencer watching the man carefully, realizing after a minute or two that it was a cleaned up version of the orchestrator of the project. Now that he was aware of who it was, Domino’s strange habits seemed more obvious, but no one else would have guessed; he himself was shocked at the difference between this distinguished-looking person and the criminal.

    The group, counting at its total eleven, moved toward a seating area in the hotel lobby. Spencer could just make out what was being said from where he sat. Domino was explaining what he wanted in very basic terms: it was a social experiment, based off a pre-existing one that had already been tested; they would be paid a sum of money for their trouble. He told them they would be doing the actual project tomorrow at a different location, so if any of them did not want to participate they would not have to return, though he stated enthusiastically that he though it would be “rewarding” for them to be a part of it.

    “Which experiment is it, again?” said a plump but attractive woman of about thirty.

    “It is a variation of the Milgram experiment. You can look it up tonight, if you want more information.”

    Spencer, having researched this name already, wondered why Domino was telling them, since it required that at least half of the people involved be unaware of the circumstances they are in while performing. He watched as the man in the black suit spelled the name for his audience.

    They departed chatting with one another, and none of them seemed to be likely to refrain from going the next day. Spencer sat for a few more minutes before taking his leave as well, nervous about what would happen. He had not caught the address Domino had told the volunteers, so he would not be able to go and possibly monitor the proceedings. Domino had sworn not to kill anyone, but Spencer was still nervous.


    It was the day after the experiment, and Spencer had awoken very early. He went downstairs to check his mail, for reason except to have something to do with himself. Standing now at his kitchen table, he flicked through the letters he had not collected the pervious day, finding nothing, nothing, nothing. The last parcel was a manila envelope, not very heavy, with no return address. He tore it open and found the sleeved disc inside, though there was nothing to explain it. He put it in his player and sat on his knees to see what the image on the television would be. There was some static, followed by grainy black and white; the view was that of a security camera. The scene was in some kind of laboratory space, but perhaps that was just an artifact of the poor view. A person entered the room, reading a slip of paper before she placed it in her pocket. She sat at in the chair in front of a small desk against the wall and observed the button in front of her. There was a voice from what was presumably a loudspeaker that said “Please begin.” The woman pushed the button once. There was a voice from the other side of the wall that made a slight sound of surprise but was otherwise undistinguishable. The woman gave a small smile before pressing the button again. She continued this process, and the person on the other side of the wall slowly gained volume. She never seemed to get concerned, in fact she giggled a few times. The disembodied voice progressed to sounds of pain, exactly as the description of this experiment said it would. The woman was not perturbed in the least. The second to last push of the button provoked a wordless, agonized scream, and the last was met with silence. The woman sat back, as if she had been told to when it reached this point, looking rather amused.

    The shot changed positions, and Spencer now saw another person with a button in front of him, also chuckling to himself as the voice opposite him increased in volume. The camera did not rest on him, but proceeded to show fast shots of three more people, all behaving similarly. The next shot was the only that was not stationary, but seemed to be hand held as the person carrying it walked along a hallway. Spencer could see five people, slumped over, motionless, with no buttons in front of them. The recording snapped off suddenly, leaving Spencer horrified, sitting in the middle of his living room, staring at the empty screen.


    The local news station’s main story that evening was about the “experiment gone wrong” of the pervious day, which had yielded five dead bodies and five other horrified participants. The ones they had identified were in low security jail until more could be found about their guilt of innocence. The station had actually been able to get one of them, the plump woman who had spoken during the introduction, to be interviewed. She was tearful and seemed absolutely terrified. She apologized repeatedly, though she admitted that it obviously would do no good.

    “How did this happen, so that you didn’t stop whatever it was you were doing?” asked the newsman conducting the interview.

    “W-we…were told that it was an experiment like the M-Milgram one. I th-thought the guy on the other side was j-just acting! I th-thought I had researched more than everyone else, so I just thought I was a-ahead.”

    “So if you had not known about the experiment before, you would not have proceeded?”


    The interview continued along these lines. There was nothing new, on information Spencer did not already know. He felt extremely guilty for the entire thing, and wondered how he had allowed himself to agree to such an absurd scheme.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 January 2009 @ 7:17 am

  4. I just came across this post while trying to find information about one of Milgram’s experiments which I volunteered to be part of when I was a child. This sounds exactly like what I remember. Would it possible for you to share with me the name of the psychologist you knew who was part of the research? I’m very interested to know more about the study and my involvement with it. Thank you.


    Comment by Omri — 21 February 2012 @ 1:01 pm

  5. Amazing. The guy who played the audiotape of Milgram’s talk at the conference was James Pennebaker. He is Professor and current Chair of the Psychology Dept. at the University of Texas at Austin. I’ll email you his email address: I’m sure he’d be eager to hear from you. In fact, I’ll drop him a line and let him know that you’ll be getting in touch. Though I don’t know whether Jamie had any direct involvement in Milgram’s research project, he might be able to point you to someone who did.

    Out of curiosity, Omri, do you remember much about your participation in the study?


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 February 2012 @ 1:19 pm

  6. For those following along at home, Jamie responded as follows:

    I chaired a session at APA in 1984 where Milgram was planning on giving a talk on his cyrano methodology. Unfortunately, his history of heart disease made it impossible for him to travel. Instead, he sent me an audio recording that I played at the meeting. Being somewhat paranoid, he had me send it back to him after the conference. The underlying idea of the cyrano paradigm was brilliant. One person who might be able to help you is Suzanne Oellette who is/was at the Graduate School in New York.

    I”m sorry I”m not more help.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 February 2012 @ 5:15 pm

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