Imagine if the words that came out of your mouth were spoken by another person. Would anyone notice? This idea was explored by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, famous for his studies into obedience, but he never published his results.
Milgram called the hybrid of one person’s body and another person’s mind, a Cyranoid, after the play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the handsome Christian woos a woman using the graceful words provided by plain-looking Cyrano. Now the concept has been resurrected by a pair of British researchers, Kevin Corti and Alex Gillespie, who say the approach has huge potential as a paradigm in social psychology.
The first study was a proof of concept. Forty participants (average age 30; 22 women) spent 10 minutes in conversation with a 26-year-old man, getting to know him. They thought this man was another participant, but in fact he was working for the researchers. For half the participants, the man spoke freely as himself. For the other half, he was a Cyranoid and spoke the words of a 23-year-old woman hidden in an adjacent room. In this condition, the woman could see and hear the man’s interactions, and she fed him what to say live, via the wireless earpiece he was wearing.
Afterwards, the participants were asked whether they thought the man had spoken his own thoughts, or whether his answers were scripted. Only a tiny minority of participants in both groups thought this might be true. None of them thought he’d had his words fed to him by radio. The participants in the Cyranoid condition were astonished and amused when told the truth of the situation.
A second study went further. This time, panels of between three and five participants interrogated either a 37-year-old man or a 12-year-old boy about who they are and what they know about science, literature, history and current affairs. For half the participants, the man and boy simply answered as themselves. For the other participants, the boy or man was Cyranoid. If the Cyranoid boy was present before the panel, his answers were fed to him by the man; if the Cyranoid man was present, the words he spoke came from the boy.
Amazingly, the participants in the Cyranoid conditions were no more likely to say afterwards that they thought their interviewee had given scripted responses, spoken words relayed by radio, or wasn’t speaking his own thoughts. No participants raised any spontaneous suspicions about the interviewees’ autonomy during the interviews. And afterwards, when prompted directly, only one person out of 17 in each condition (two Cyranoid conditions and two normal) believed their interviewee’s answers had been fed to them.
The Cyranoid set-up is especially intriguing to social psychologists because it allows the influence of a person’s appearance to be weighed against the influence of their words, as spoken by another person. In this study, the participants rated the personality and intelligence of the man and boy equally positively when they spoke as themselves. Yet when the man spoke the words of the boy, he was given more negative ratings. This is in spite of the fact the participants failed to adjust the difficulty of their questions in this condition, presumably so as not to patronise the man publicly.
You can begin to see how the Cyranoid paradigm can illuminate issues to do with social stereotypes triggered by appearances and words, and the differences in people’s responses in terms of their private thoughts and public actions. Another angle is the issue of how a person’s speech is changed by the fact they are speaking through another body. In this case, the man and boy were trained to speak as themselves, yet the man shortened his sentences when speaking through the boy. The boy did not increase the length of his utterances when speaking as the man, perhaps because of the difficulty of doing so.
There could also be practical applications for this technique – for instance, imagine helping people with social anxiety. They could occupy an intimidating situation bodily, but have their words dictated by someone else; or conversely, they could practice providing the speech in such a situation while having the relative comfort of speaking their words through someone else’s body.
“Though Milgram did not live to see his Cyranoid method come to fruition, the current research provides ample basis for the continued exploration of this intriguing methodological paradigm,” the researchers said. “Indeed, the Cyranoid method may yet prove to be a long overdue addition to the social psychologist’s toolkit.”
Corti, K., & Gillespie, A. (2014). Revisiting Milgram’s Cyranoid Method: Experimenting With Hybrid Human Agents The Journal of Social Psychology, 155 (1), 30-56 DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2014.959885