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PT Barnum meets Stanley Milgram

What have professional showmen like PT Barnum and social psychologists like Stanley Milgram got in common? Plenty, according to Michael Pettit,  science historian and author of  ‘The Science of Deception’. Pettit argues that social psychologists involved in experiments involving trickery and deception are Barnum’s ‘heirs’.

Even though I’ve written about Milgram’s obedience experiments and their relationship to the 1960s prank show Candid Camera, Pettit traces the link between popular entertainment and psychology back to the 19th century.

There’s certainly a touch of showmanship in Milgram’s first ad for volunteers, which was published in the New Haven Register on Sunday June 18, 1961.


Look at the way he’s used an attention-grabbing heading, a hierarchy of text sizes, and bolding to make the advertisement easy to read at a glance.

The tone and rhythm mimicked ads for closing-down sales, and the repetition of the four dollars, the one hour required, and the fact that there were no further obligations was reminiscent of someone making a pitch: “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, four dollars for only one hour. That’s right, just one hour of your time.”

The emphasis on the lack of special training, education, or experience highlighted that unskilled men could and should apply—if they met the “qualification” (a word perhaps used to flatter exactly these sorts of readers, given that the only qualifications were age and gender).

The implication of the ad was that selection was a privilege because there would be more applications than spots.

Milgram was disappointed with the response to his ads. Despite the paper’s Sunday circulation of 106,000, he received only 296 replies.

He blamed the weekend’s weather: that Sunday it had been a sunny 80 degrees with a welcome dip in humidity. Instead of sitting inside and reading the paper, the men he was hoping to reach had been lured out by the unseasonally beautiful weather for picnics and ball games.

What didn’t seem to occur to him was that some readers might have viewed the ad with suspicion because of its gimmicky tone.

And locals might have been even more sceptical. After all, Barnum was born in Connecticut and is buried just 20 miles away in Bridgeport, which is also home to the Barnum museum.


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