Bethany’s elevator experiment a case of backward research

students in an elevator turning and looking at camera

Social conformity is everywhere. The clothes we wear. The rules we follow. The social roles we play. “Conformity is all around us,” said Jennifer Wosmek, a psychology instructor at Bethany Lutheran College. “But it’s hard to get at systematically.”

But Wosmek’s students found a way — and they used an elevator.

The idea to research social conformity in elevators came from a Candid Camera stunt in which a group of individuals are facing the back of an elevator when a new rider enters. Some follow suit, even though the notion of facing the back of a moving elevator is completely at odds with normal circumstances.

The video is sometimes cited in psychology textbooks and has become staple viewing in social psychology courses (yes, there’s a clip on YouTube). Bethany students, however, were unable to find even one research study that attempted to replicate the results.

So, the six students in Wosmek’s testing and measurements course crafted their own study and spent weeks gathering data at a large mall in the Twin Cities. (Wosmek said she does not have permission to use the mall’s name.) “This project gave us a chance to see what conformity really looks like,” senior Hayley Whitcomb said.

In one case, a man and woman immediately conformed when the elevator doors opened. They remained backward for the duration of the one-floor ride — and then backed out of the elevator when it stopped. In other cases, confused riders would turn backward and then ask if, perhaps, a second door existed that was going to open somewhere else.

Some riders turned only partially backward in an apparent effort to satisfy both their everyday sensibilities and their urge to conform.

“During our baseline testing, no one stood backward,” senior Courtney Nelson said. “But when we implemented (the experiment), it was interesting to see that people would actually do this.”

As they found, however, some are more likely to conform than others.

Age, for instance, predicts conformity.

The youngest conform most often (more than 40 percent of the time) while the oldest are least likely to conform (between 14 and 24 percent depending on if they are a middle-aged adult or lateaged adult, respectively).

Men are more likely to conform fully while women demonstrated higher levels of partial conformity. Study participants were also more likely to conform if there were a larger number of people facing backward.

“This project was really hands- on,” senior Shamaryah Miller said. “We were able to take what we learned in a book and really apply it.”

And that, students said, was the real lesson learned.

Conducting thought experiments on conformity is one thing, but devising an experiment that is procedurally sound is another. To that end, Wosmek’s students spent several weeks developing procedures and protocols to ensure their study was airtight.

They recruited dozens of campus volunteers to serve as “prompts” — the people who would stand backward in the elevator. Those volunteers were told to dress in different clothing styles, to avoid laughing or showing expression during the trials and to exit the elevator in separate directions so that onlookers wouldn’t get suspicious.

Each student was given different variables for their trials and made sure to record data secretly. Even before taking their experiment into the field, they ran several practice sessions in elevators downtown and at Minnesota State University.

The result, Wosmek said, was a “solid piece of research.” She said she’s even hoping to replicate the experiment next year with a university in China.

“This kind of experience turns students on to research,” Wosmek said. “It gets them involved in that role and seeing themselves as psychologists.”

December 20, 2011

This article originally appeared in the December 12 edition of the Free Press, Mankato. It was authored by Tanner Kent, Free Press staff writer.

Learn more about studying psychology at Bethany.