Deviance in the Dark

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Black and white padded cell drawing.
Deviance in the Dark by Stuart McMillen. Cartoon of man sitting on the floor of a padded room. Prof Ken Gergen.
Cartoon of infrared students sitting and talking. In the early 1970s, college students participated in an unusual behavioural experiment. Eight volunteers—four males and four females—were contained in a small, dark, padded room for 60 minutes.
Cartoon drawing of cassette tape. The researchers wondered how the strangers would behave in a totally anonymous situation, devoid of social norms, and the ability to see one another. Throughout the experiment, the researchers were secretly recording the participants – listening to their conversations, and observing their behaviour.
Drawing of cartoon finger pressing play on cassette tape recorder. The findings were so intriguing that the experiment was later nicknamed “Deviance in the Dark”. Let's rewind the tape, to describe the students' pathway into the blackened room.
WANTED: subjects for an environmental psychology experiment. In the early 1970s, psychologists Ken Gergen and Mary Gergen began leafleting Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. The husband and wife research team posted their vague advertisements on bulletin boards across the campus and waited for volunteers to contact them.
Drawing of girl speaking on telephone, curling phone cord with fingers. Lured by a small cash payment, dozens of volunteers contacted the Gergens to participate in the experiment. Appointments were booked. The participants were each individually told to meet in a certain faculty room at a certain time. The participants filled out a questionnaire for 20 minutes, alone in an empty room.
Cartoon man leaning into doorway, gesturing down the hallway. One by one, Ken Gergen visited the participants and asked them to remove their shoes, and to remove all possessions from their pockets. He asked them to follow him down a hallway.
Cartoon man leading a student down a college hallway. On the journey, Professor Gergen told the person that he was taking them into a room that would be darkened to pitch black. He said that the student would be left in the room for 60 minutes...
Cartoon dutch angle people walking down a hallway. ...that there would be other people in the room with them and that there were no rules and no instructions about what the participants should do in the room with each other. Gergen said that each participant would be led out of the room alone, one by one, after the 60 minutes had elapsed. He concluded by stating that there would not be any opportunity for the participants to meet each other after the experiment was over.
With that, the student was led through a series of double-doors, and led into a room that was pitch black, except for a small red pinprick-sized light above the emergency exit.
High angle x-ray view of 8 student sitting inside the Deviance in the Dark experiment padded room. Ken Gergen repeated this process another 7 times, until the dark room contained 8 students: 4 male and 4 female.
High angle cartoon drawing of man entering office. Cross-section showing the neighbouring rooms. Ken joined his wife Mary in an adjacent room.
Cartoon man and woman putting on large headphones. They were able to see and hear the participants via an infrared camera and microphone that had been installed in the ceiling of the room.
“Is anyone else in here?” was the typical response after the student had been deposited into the room by Prof Gergen.
Infrared red imagery, high angle view of students inside the Deviance in the Dark padded room. The absolute blackness was totally disorientating. The participants felt nameless, and faceless. Invisible and anonymous in the darkness. The participants communicated with each other to learn that the room was 3 metres (10 feet) long by 3.6 metres (12 feet) wide—similar in size to a cargo elevator—with padded walls.
High angle view of husband and wife in the control room, watching television monitor. The Gergens had done all they could to cut the participants from the social norms of their everyday existence. The participants had an opportunity to be free from the informal rules of daily behaviour. If they wanted, they could do anything in this room, safe in the knowledge that they would never meet these seven other people ever again.
Close-ups of college student faces, redscale infrared. So, would they act in accordance with everyday social norms? Or would they invent new ways of behaving in the blacked-out room?
Unbeknownst to the participants, Ken and Mary Gergen were running a second, parallel experiment with another set of students. Another set of students had been recruited from the same college bulletin board advertisements.
All respondees had been taken through the same process of meeting in a faculty room, filling out a questionnaire, and then being led shoeless to a padded room. This second group of participants had been randomly-assigned into an experimental room that differed in just a single way.
High angle view of students sittingon the floor in a padded room, infrared camera effect.The first group of students was put into a darkened room for 60 minutes.
High angle view of students sittingon the floor in a padded room, black and white greyscale. And the second group of students was put into an illuminated room for 60 minutes. The Gergens started the stopwatch, and observed.
Young college students sitting cross-legged on the floor talking cartoon. Ken and Mary Gergen noted clear differences in behaviour between the students in each room. In the illuminated room, the participants were chatterboxes.
Dutch angle illustration of students sitting cross-legged on the floor talking. Their steady, focused conversation lasted for the entire hour. The light room participants were more eager to know the identity of the other participants, and to tell their room-mates who they were.
The dark room participants were less eager to know or be known. They were more willing to be anonymous with their room mates. To be sure, the participants talked to each other in the darkness, but the conversations noticeably faded after the first 30 minutes.
The discussion became muted, disjointed and faltering after the initial period of chattiness. There were periods of “deafening silence”, noted Ken and Mary Gergen. But although the verbal activity was subdued in the dark room, the participants were active in other ways.
High angle view of students sitting in jail cell. In the illuminated room, the participants typically sat down at the start of the experiment, and remained sitting in that one spot. They kept their distance from the others – almost always more than 1 metre (3 feet) from their neighbouring participants. Essentially, they sat in a wide circle and talked for an entire hour.
Infrared cartoon red imagery of students crawling on hands and knees. By contrast, the dark room was a hub of diverse activity. The dark room participants moved around fluidly throughout the experiment, usually crawling around on their hands and knees to navigate the absolute darkness.
Only 5% of light room participants accidentally touched each other during the session. By contrast, all dark room participants accidentally touched each other during the session. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The dark room participants went much further than accidentally touching each other, they began intentionally touching each other. Almost none of the light room's participants touched each other on purpose. Yet almost 90% of the dark room's participants touched each other on purpose.
High angle parody of Theme Hospital PC game by Bullfrog software. The Gergens observed as these randomly-selected individuals acted in wildly different ways…
Cartoon tribute homage to Theme Hospital PC game by Bullfrog software. ...based purely on the presence or absence of electric light bulbs in their respective rooms.
While the light room participants remained at arm's length distance from each other, almost 50% of the dark room participants hugged another person during the experiment.
Only 30% of the light room subjects said they felt sexual excitement during the experiment. Almost 80% of the dark room subjects said they felt sexual excitement during the experiment.
Physical intimacy between light room participants did not come close to happening. Yet, intimacy between strangers was a common occurrence in the dark room.
Cartoon students kissing while in a spotlight beam circle. In the darkness, many of the participants held hands, touched each other's bodies, touched each other's faces and kissed each other during the experiment.
Physical, bodily appearances mattered nil in the inky blackness. Words and physical contact were the communication tools that remained. It was a fluid exchange of experience, emotion and feeling between strangers.
Most of this physical activity happened in the final 30 minutes of the hour-long session. Indeed, this was a reason why the dark room's conversation trailed off in the second half of the experiment.
Cartoon view over shoulder of student being touched on the shoulder, looking behind him. Ken Gergen entered the room after 60 minutes, and began tapping the participants, and leading them out of the room one by one.
They were ushered to separate rooms, for a post-experiment questionnaire. As promised, they were not introduced to the other participants after the experiment had concluded. Everyone anonymously went their separate ways.
Ken and Mary Gergen ran these experiments multiple times, with different groups of randomly-allocated participants. There were three light room experiments, and six dark room experiments.
Invariably, Ken Gergen felt like he was interrupting the dark room participants during a heightened physical and emotional state. He wondered what would happen if the participants were left in the room for longer than 60 minutes? Ken and Mary planned additional experiments that would further probe the secrets of the darkness. They ran two additional dark-room experiments, repeating each new experiment three times.
Cartoon hand holding pen, drawing lines on graph paper. Repeat #1: Firstly, they repeated the initial 60-minute experiment, but extended the time period to a total of 90 minutes. The Gergens found that the experiences of the participants were heightened, across most experimental variables.
During the extra 30 minutes, the participants became even more open with each other, with conversations about deep and important topics. Interestingly, fewer participants reported being “bored” in the 90 minute sessions, compared to the 60-minute sessions.
Repeat #2: The second repeat experiment was almost identical to the first repeat. But there was a subtle twist. This time, rather than being told that they would never again meet the other participants in broad daylight the participants were explicitly told that they would be introduced to their room mates after the experiment was over.
This was the small, but important difference between Repeat #1 and Repeat #2. The tweak noticeably affected the behaviour of the room mates. The participants in these three dark room sessions clammed-up in ways that resembled the behaviour of the light room participants.
The students became less likely to explore the chamber, and more likely to sit stationary throughout the experiment. They were less likely to introduce themselves to others. Less likely to touch. Less likely to hug. They were less likely to feel “close” to the other participants and more likely to feel bored.
The participants in the earlier experiments, who had been promised total, permanent anonymity, had opened up to each other in the darkness. They physically and emotionally embraced each other during the experiment. Indeed, the participants in these original dark rooms self-reported that they deeply enjoyed their experience so much that they wanted to do it again, without payment.
By contrast, the participants in the final repeats, who were awaiting the “big unveil” after 90 minutes, retained their emotional distance during the experiment. They behaved as if the lights were turned on seemingly constricted by the straitjacket of social behaviour patterns. Though temporarily anonymous in the dark, they remembered that the scrutinising light of social norms lurked around the corner.
Cartoon of Psychology Today magazine cover inside torn envelope. The Gergens' 1973 paper, “Deviance in the Dark” called for caution against the assumption that anonymous, de-individualised societies are inherently bad. Their results—though based on a specific, and limited sample—had found that anonymity had enabled positive tendencies amongst the participants. Indeed, their experimental efforts to pull back the cloak of anonymity had stifled the interpersonal engagement of the students.
Deviance in the Dark's results differed from other infamous psychological studies like Milgram's electric shock experiment or Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment where anonymous strangers had injured or humiliated other experimental participants.
Those earlier experiments had curated situations where anonymous people hurt each other. The Gergens' experiment had curated a situation where anonymous people embraced each other.
Cartoon of anonymous students with face obscured, cuddling while sitting on floor. Anonymity can cut either way. It can allow us to be brutal, or it can allow us to be caring. In the case of Deviance in the Dark, the dark room participants shed their existing social norms, and replaced them with improvised norms based on respect and affection.
High angle view of Deviance in the Dark students sitting on floor in paded room, looking at each other. Ken Gergen and Mary Gergen felt that intimacy is a natural condition that human beings want to feel but our social traditions keep us at arm's length from each other.
Deviance in the Dark was an experiment conducted on students of a certain nationality (American), of a certain age group (18-to-25), during a certain cultural era (the 1970s). It was also conducted in a safe place under remote supervision. The participants knew that they could exit if necessary. The results, therefore, cannot be automatically extrapolated to the wider human population. But it remains a fascinating case study, with distinct results.
Ken and Mary Gergen subtracted the lights, and the students added their intimacy. In just 60 or 90 minutes, the dark room participants found a emotional connection that most acquaintances will never reach, even after years of company.
Ironically, it was the participants in the illuminated room who were blind to the potential that sat before them. One variable changed it all.
Cartoon light bulb being shot. Shoot out the lights.
Cartoon light bulb being shot. Shoot out the lights.Cartoon light bulb being shot. Shoot out the lights.

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• The Deviance in the Dark experiments were conducted by Ken Gergen and Mary Gergen of Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. Their findings were published in Psychology Today (October 1973).
• Unfortunately I cannot find academic papers with data tables that reveal the full trends of the variables that the researchers studied. I have also been unable to contact Ken and Mary Gergen for additional information. Hence, my primary source is the 1973 magazine article.
• The experiment was repeated in 2012 for an episode of a Discovery Channel TV show. This 2012 repeat, a single 60-minute session, did not observe physical intimacy that resembled the original 1972 sessions. The participants kept their distance from each other.

white space



12 October 2018

Theme Hospital, bloaty head reference! Nice!


30 October 2017

That's so cool! It kinda reminds me the whole situation between Reddit and 4chan in respects with anonymity. One can foster a concentration of love and the other can brew a maelstrom of hate (and sometimes vice versa).

John Maynard

15 January 2017

Amazing. You feature such relevant and important work. Don't ever stop.


18 October 2016

I loved this format. Thank you!


13 July 2016

These feel like they deserve a distribution technique similar to Chick Tracts or Sithrak Tracts.

Damn Skippy

28 April 2016

Gotta agree with Doug. I want to thank you for this information, presented in graphical form. But I want to slap you for the web interface.


20 April 2016

Excellent comic! I passionately loathe your scrolling system though. I was navigating by mouse until the clicking of my mouse wheel started to annoy me, and then I switched to the keyboard. Big mistake. The page started jumping all over the place, and I really had to fight to read the remainder of the comic. (And just pressing the left key while writing this comment whizzed me back to the start. Very annoying.)


16 April 2016

Gotye brought me here. Excellent read


13 April 2016

Thanks Stu. Awesome as always.


13 April 2016

Wow dude! Thanks for making information entertaining! Double points for being a psychology experiment.


15 March 2016

Page 54 sums it all up beautifully. Makes you wonder if social norms arose to prevent the misgivings of a minority to the detriment of the majority.


15 March 2016

This is an awesome comic, Thank you. I teach about the Deviance in the Dark study in my Social Psychology class and your visuals here explain it very well.


15 March 2016

Loved the concept but a bit hard to read the print even after zooming. On a PC ATM but will check it on the iPad and hope it's better. Looking forward to reading the one on peak oil.

that guy

27 February 2016

WORST INTERFACE EVER. I wanted to read this but could not. Highly frustrating! Please post in non-clever format, this looks amazing.


24 February 2016

Have you tested yor site on iOS Safari? Because it doesn't look like it. Also kudos for unironically rejecting anonymous comments on an article espousing the benefits of anonymity.

Lights Off

21 February 2016

I just loved the Theme Hospital references


21 February 2016

Wonderful illustration of an interesting case. I would like to add that Milgrim's and Zimbardo's experiment also added authority in the environments and might have complicated the relationship of anonymity and "bad" behaviours.

Mohsen Borji

18 February 2016

So great and beautiful storyline. Thanks.


17 February 2016

Touching and perceptive and super positive. I wonder how the experiment would have changed across cultures? Awesome. Thanks Stuart!


16 February 2016

Made me think about why I enjoy travel to foreign lands. I feel far more anonymous and uninhibited on a Tokyo street corner than I do in my local grocery store. In Tokyo I know that I will likely never meet those people again. Not the same in my own neighbourhood.


14 February 2016

Fantastic. Thanks Stuart!


11 February 2016

Wonderful work!

Konstantine M.

10 February 2016

Interesting choice to create a comic from; I am too poor to contribute financially but it's good work, thank you. Regarding the Research rationale, one is led to asume the researchers had never heard of gay darkrooms? They did exist in the 70s, surely.

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