The Creepy Scientists Who Hid In Girls’ Dorm Rooms

By Nolan Moore on Sunday, July 6, 2014
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“Didn’t Mummy ever tell you it was rude to eavesdrop, Potter?” —Draco Malfoy, in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

In A Nutshell

Scientists are great, but sometimes their experiments get a little freaky. For example, let’s consider the time that a group of researchers decided to hide under the beds in a women’s college. While their goal was to analyze daily conversations, their methods were more than a bit creepy.

The Whole Bushel

Ever get the horrible feeling that something might be lurking under your bed? Don’t worry. It’s probably just a scientist. From time to time, researchers may get the odd urge to arm themselves with pens and paper and sneak under your mattress, all for the purpose of writing down your conversations. Or at least they did back in 1938. Wanting to refute a study that claimed people became less egocentric as they grew older, these guys decided to trail random strangers and record nearly every single word they said.

Since they didn’t have to worry about things like informed consent (it was the ’30s, anything went scientifically speaking), the researchers just started following people on the streets. They’d sit beside them in cafes or follow them into cinemas. They’d chase them into clothing stores or hang around in public bathrooms, listening to their chitchat. While trying to remain invisible, they secretly dictated almost everything their subjects said, taking down their words in shorthand. What exactly was the point? Well, the idea was to focus on daily conversations and see how often people talked about themselves. Sure, this was incredibly creepy, but things got even weirder when the scientists moved into Phase Two.

The problem with eavesdropping on others in public is that people are always aware of others around them. They might be chatting with friends or family, but they aren’t as relaxed as they would be, say, at home. So in the name of science, the researchers decided to set up camp inside a women’s college. As you might expect, this is where things get really disturbing. Not only did the scientists start listening to all the students’ phone calls, they also got the keys to their dormitories. Soon, a bunch of scientists were lying under mattresses in women’s bedrooms, spying on gatherings and tea parties, writing down everything they heard. Evidently, these guys were science ninjas, as it seems none of the women suspected a thing.

Eventually, the study was published in the Journal of Social Psychology. Titled “Egocentricity in Adult Conversation,” the scientists wrote that after spending hours and hours as professional stalkers, they discovered people mostly tend to talk about themselves. The scientists stated that as children, we take part in a lot of egocentric conversation, and we never really stop. No matter how old we get, we keep on talking about our favorite subject . . . ourselves. Of course, the study never addressed the really interesting question of what people should do if they happen to find a scientist hiding in their room. And while we’re asking questions . . . have you checked under your bed lately?

Show Me The Proof

io9.com: Scientists are hiding under your bed
Mind Hacks: Relax ladies, I’m a scientist