The Wall Street Journal
Professor's Experiments Fool Passersby; Look Carefully at Who Is Behind That Door
BERLIN—Tom Stafford trolled the streets here on a recent day, playing with people's minds.
He stood at a busy intersection, looking up, just to see how many onlookers he could get to copy him. Then he moved on to a more elaborate ruse, trying it on a half-dozen unsuspecting subjects.
He isn't a prankster or a performance artist. It's all in the interest of science.
Dr. Stafford, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., was conducting experiments on a "cognitive science safari" around Berlin. The idea: to teach principles about how the mind works by making them come alive in the real world.
The experiments are "an experience," says Dr. Stafford, 34 years old. Science, he says, "is a very human activity."
In one test, a man asked a passerby for directions. Then Dr. Stafford arranged for a full-size wooden door to be lugged between them.
Physicist Brian Greene, right, at the 2012 World Science Festival in New York.
During that brief instant, the man seeking directions was replaced—by a very different looking, much shorter person.
Yet the passerby failed to notice any change—and went right on giving directions. He turned to walk away before being alerted that he had just been fooled.
Trailed by attendees to his lectures, Dr. Stafford used the door-swapping scheme to illustrate a concept known as "change blindness," in which people fail to notice differences in seemingly critical information when they are distracted.
Dr. Stafford's endeavor is an example of a larger effort to make science more fun and applicable to people's lives—and to generate more interest in science in the U.S. and Europe, which have produced steadily fewer scientists in recent years compared with Asia.
Hands-on science centers for kids have long existed. But in recent years, there have been increased efforts to appeal to young adults and spur people's interest in science through "experiences" at weekslong festivals and citywide initiatives such as the Berlin "mobile lab" in which Dr. Stafford participated, sponsored by German auto maker BMW AG, and the Guggenheim Foundation. [The HSeverywhere.com social networking site will be positioned to do this sort of thing for tens of millions of young people daily.]
The efforts may also be changing the public perception of scientists as loners in white coats, hanging out with lab rats. [There may be no "may also be" to it: To the extent an HSeverywhere-like environment melds with the lives of our nation's young people, that demographic's perception of the STEM subjects will logically be poised to transform. Actual resulting metrics will be measured, as detailed in the password protected www.hseverywhere.com business plan.]
At the World Science Festival in New York this summer, Columbia University's Brian Greene performed "magic" tricks illustrating quantum levitation. The self-described "Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages," the University of Pennsylvania's Patrick McGovern, spoke about beer brewing as humankind's first biotechnology.
And entomologists are creating artwork celebrating insects at the Pestival festival "to challenge existing stereotypes about insects and to give them their rightful place, for good and bad (vectors and pollinators), in our collective cultural consciousness," according to the website of the London Zoo, where Pestival will work the next three years to develop an arts program.
Sometimes the right buzz factor is elusive.
A recent European Commission campaign called Women in Research and Innovation was meant to show girls and young women "that science can be a great opportunity for their future," according to the commission. The video, "Science: It's a Girl Thing," quickly went viral, but not for the reasons the commission hoped.
The video featured giggling young women in short dresses and spike heels striking poses, interspersed with images of beakers and microscopes, lipstick and rouge. Among the hundreds of thousands of responses on YouTube: "The ad is like a tampon commercial" and "This video makes me want to throw up."
Michael Jennings, a commission spokesman, said the effort was an "honest attempt" at increasing interest in science, and the committee "recognized very quickly that essentially it wasn't representative to the campaign."
"We accept that it crossed a line or the balance was wrong," said Mr. Jennings.
Dr. Stafford's efforts in Berlin had their ups and downs. After giving a brief talk at an outdoor podium surrounded by galleries and cafes, the professor, dressed in sports sandals and a flowery button-down shirt, took his audience to the streets.
The 30 or so people who attended the free, outdoor class ranged from an American tourist from Idaho to a German psychology professor.
To illustrate the power of the crowd, Dr. Stafford led the group to a busy intersection, where he had a few people look across the street at nothing in particular, to see how many onlookers he could get to do the same. At first, there were very few.
But by tweaking the situation slightly—looking up—heads soon turned to the sky. Many passersby, perhaps embarrassed to gawk too obviously, waited until they were across the street before giving a glance up over their shoulder.
Not all the apprentices were impressed.
"To demonstrate when three people look up, a lot of people look up, that was on 'Candid Camera' 20 years ago," said Martin Theobald, a Berlin-based television producer, who followed the outdoor class.
The highlight of the afternoon was the investigation on change blindness using the wooden-door trick. In studies that have been published on the topic, about 50% of people will fail to notice the switch, Dr. Stafford said.
In Berlin streets, the experiment was repeated six times for the audience, using a couple of direction-askers in cahoots with Dr. Stafford. Four people failed to notice the change in direction-asker, though one of the men working with Dr. Stafford, Jakub Limanowski, is taller and blonder than his doppelgänger, Matt Craddock.
One trial did have to be halted when one passerby got angry at the door-holders and tried to block them out of the conversation, nearly getting hit by the door.
So why do people fail to notice such seemingly important information, such as to whom they are talking?
"It's not about people's stupidity," said Dr. Stafford, but rather that the brain needs to focus on pertinent information and filter out noise.
Still, one passerby felt foolish after failing to notice that he had been talking to a tall man, and then a shorter one.
"I wondered, because first I looked up, then I looked down," the man said. "But I guess I was so hungry."
A version of this article appeared September 6, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: This Isn't Candid Camera, It's a Science Project This Isn't Candid Camera, It's a Science Project.