[soh-shuh l ik-sper-uh-muhnt]
What does social experiment mean?
A social experiment is a type of research done in fields like psychology or sociology to see how people behave in certain situations or how they respond to particular policies or programs.
Informal, personal, and humorous experimentation, such as pranks, is sometimes also referred to as a social experiment.
Where does social experiment come from?
Scientifically, social experiments began in the 1860s. They are different than clinical or lab experiments in that they research how people behave in the real world, socially.
Famous, and controversial, social experiments include the 1960s Stanley Milgram experiment, which tested subjects’ obedience by having them think they were electrically shocking other people. Others are the 1960s Bobo doll experiment, examining violence in children, and the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, quickly abandoned after participants took their roles as prisoners and guards too seriously.
In social media and the internet …
… social experiment became a phrase for informal efforts to see how people react to something. For instance, in 2012, actor Cole Sprouse set up a personal Tumblr account as a social experiment.
In 2013, Chance the Rapper launched his Social Experiment tour, joining the group The Social Experiment for a critically acclaimed 2015 album, Surf.
The phrase social experiment became the subject of some internet controversy thanks to YouTube prank videos. One YouTuber, Sam Pepper, posted a video in 2014 where he pinched the butts of women after asking them for directions. The prank called outrage and Pepper attempted to defend it by saying it wasn’t sexual harassment but a social experiment. Yeah, no.
In 2018, Instagram celebrity Timmy Thick, popular for his risqué and effeminate pictures, claimed his feed was a social experiment run by Harvard University.
Examples of social experiment
Who uses social experiment?
Sociologists, psychologists, and behavioral economists conduct formal social experiments. The Marshmallow Test, concerning delayed gratification and willpower, was a called a social experiment in the 2010s.
Individuals may refer to personal experiments (e.g., dying their hair green) as social experiments. Sometimes, brands conduct more attention-getting or humorous informal social experiments, such as in 2018 when Payless Shoes tricked people into thinking their shoes were exclusive, high-end designer footwear.
Quite the prank, @paylessinsider! The shoe store hosted a social experiment to see if fashion influencers would pay top dollar for their discount shoes. (Hint: They did!) @ABonTV breaks it down for us. https://t.co/0wZJnpowI9 pic.twitter.com/JQxxi6VLqi
— Good Morning America (@GMA) November 30, 2018
This is not meant to be a formal definition of social experiment like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of social experiment that will help our users expand their word mastery.