A Citizen Science Dinner Party at the Social Observatory
Involving Humans In Science To Do Science For Humanity
Written by Grant Currin
Illustration by Jenna Van Hout
Published September 19, 2020
Zarinah Agnew, a neuroscientist with a Ph.D. from Imperial College London, gave her dinner party guests about fifteen minutes to finish their tea and complete the demographic questionnaires lying next to their napkins. While they were working, Agnew walked around the room and placed a small black envelope by each of the place settings. Once everyone was ready, she explained how the next part of the experiment was going to work.
“In the envelope, there’s $5 in singles. You’re welcome to keep all of this if you like. You’re also welcome to donate all of it, or some of it. Whatever you decide to donate will be put to a good cause. I’m not going to tell you what the good cause is, you just have to trust that it’s going to be used in a positive way.”
The guests at each of the tables had 15 minutes to go into a private booth, one by one, and decide how much of the small windfall to donate and how much they wanted to pocket. They didn’t know it at the time, but their choice would become data Agnew would use to determine whether a small change at dinner affected how generously they gave.
Most social science research is about isolating variables to see how people behave when the researcher changes one thing in an experiment. That’s why experiments in fields like behavioral economics and social psychology so often take place in nondescript rooms, with just an undergraduate research subject and computer. Anything else could influence the subject’s behavior and taint the results. Agnew thinks this approach unjustifiably ignores the context in which behavior happens. That’s one reason she started the Social Observatory, an organization to facilitate doing social science experiments in the real world, where people are with people. So far they’ve done work in bars, the hotel, and at the experimental dinner parties.
It’s unusual for scientists to be open about the early stages of a research project. Agnew says the transparency she’s bringing to the scientific process stems from her desire to help non-scientists understand how social science works, and to give them the power to use the same tools for themselves.
As guests make their way to dinner, they know that they’re attending an “experimental dinner,” but they aren’t told exactly what that means before they come. The invitations are short on detail. There are a few rules:
- Exactly 16 people must attend, so be sure to RSVP.
- Guests are welcome, but you’ll be assigned to different tables.
- Please arrive at 6pm on the dot.
The most recent event took place last February at The Red Victorian, a three-story hotel built in 1904. It was a peace-oriented bed and breakfast from 1976 until the owner’s death in 2013. Now it’s owned by a non-profit collective called The Embassy Network (Agnew is a member). The second and third floors are a hotel, and the ground floor serves as a lobby and community space. It’s important that the experimental dinners feel like normal social events, so Agnew and her team do their best to make the community space feel like a restaurant, albeit a quirky one with candelabras and clipboards on two worn wooden tables.
The candles were lit and the tables set before guests started showing up. Jimmy Smith’s Back in the Chicken Shack set the tone: Elevated but not stuffy. It was dark outside by the time guests arrived. Most who lived in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood had been to the Red Vic before, but the guest list was diverse. When a last-minute cancellation left two empty places at the table, the organizers went out to the sidewalk and invited a couple of tourists — a teenager and his mom — to join.
One of the attendees on February 7, 2019 was named Emily Bender, a 25-year-old writer and fellow at Public Allies, a social justice-oriented organization that cultivates young organizers. Bender grew up in Chicago and studied political science at Vassar. She and Agnew both live in houses that are affiliated with Haight St. Commons, a network of independent housing cooperatives in San Francisco. Bender RSVP’d after seeing Agnew post an invitation to the network’s Facebook group.
When Bender was researching her thesis at Vassar, “I spent so much of my time sitting in my room by myself at my desk and wanted to go and explore some of these spaces,” she says. “Eventually San Francisco kind of materialized as a place where a lot of interesting things were happening,” so she found a communal house on Google and moved to the city in March 2018. On the night of the experimental dinner, she got to the Red Vic a little late, but it wasn’t a big deal.
Around 7pm, Agnew welcomed everyone, thanked them for coming, and invited them to sit at their assigned seats. There were two tables with eight guests each. A white screen kept the members of each group from seeing the other table.
“We were all talking to each other and trying to figure out what the experiment was,” Bender says. When a table at the edge of the room suddenly broke, everyone jumped up and rushed over to fix it.
“They were like, ‘this must be part of the experiment! They’re trying to see if we can help,’ ” Agnew remembers. But that was just an accident. The real experimental intervention was still in the kitchen.
All the guests had the same meal of garlic bread and a big salad, but all the tables didn’t get the same treatment. The guests couldn’t see each other because of the screen separating the tables, but only one table was served plated meals, like in a restaurant. At the other table, guests were given all the same ingredients, but they had to work together to build their salads. It’s a subtle difference, but Agnew thought it might offer evidence that even a small amount of cooperation can make people more inclined to be more generous.
After dinner, Agnew and her volunteers cleared the tables and then she brought out another round of small black envelopes containing five $1 bills. Once again, everyone had time to walk into the booth and decide how much to give to charity and how much to pocket — just as they had at the beginning of the meal. It was a long evening, but their decisions were critical data.
“I’d be very wary of making any conclusions,” Agnew says now, because there isn’t nearly enough data yet. But now that the experimental protocol is in place, the same experiment can be replicated over and over with new participants. It won’t be until the experiment has run dozens of times with hundreds of different people that Agnew will have enough data to determine whether collaborating to co-create dinner with their tablemates reliably leads people to be more generous.
Dessert was served once everyone finished deciding what to do with their money. All the participants gathered, and Agnew posed questions to spark discussion, such as:
- What do you think it means to blur the lines between whether this is a social event or an experiment?
- What are the ethical questions of doing so?
- What do you think the problems might be of doing something like this?
- What are the benefits?
- What would you do if you were running an experiment?
For Bender, taking part in the experiment opened her mind to a new mode of understanding the social world. She says it showed her “another way to play with different ideas” about how subtle differences can influence the members of a group.
This is another way that the experimental dinner party is different from an experiment in a lab. Post-study debriefings are common in mainstream social science, but they’re usually limited to describing the hypothesis and explaining how the study is designed to answer it. If participants were deceived, they’re usually told how and why. But they aren't typically asked open-ended questions about ethics and benefits, and they aren’t asked what sort of experiments they would run themselves if given the chance.
Post-study debriefings are common in mainstream social science, but they’re usually limited to describing the hypothesis and explaining how the study is designed to answer it. If participants were deceived, they’re usually told how and why. But they aren't typically asked open-ended questions about ethics and benefits, and they aren’t asked what sort of experiments they would run themselves if given the chance.
In Agnew’s academic career, she studied how the brain encodes and decodes information in complex motor movement. Most of her 27 peer-reviewed papers are aimed at laying the neuroscientific groundwork to develop therapies for people who have movement disorders, such as apraxia and ataxia. But despite having a successful research career, she’s frustrated with the incentives that drive academic science. “If you’re lucky, you get to be both a good academic and a good scientist, but sometimes it’s hard to do both,” she says.
Daniel Navon, a sociologist at University of California San Diego who studies science and knowledge, hears similar complaints from the scientists he interviews. Many of them find the constraints of institutional science “extremely restrictive, burdensome, and kind of soul-crushing.” Since most research projects require funding from government agencies or private sources, researchers often spend a lot of time competing for those resources. While most of the funding is public, a small number of administrators and reviewers set priorities and decide which funding requests will be granted. Individual researchers are left to navigate the research agencies’ political priorities and the preferences of subject matter experts in a complex reviewer structure. “That often means you end up not quite asking the questions you’d ideally want to ask,” Navon says.
The Social Observatory isn’t the first attempt to create a situation to ask questions that are critical to human social and cultural survival. In 1923, philosophers and social scientists associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, embarked on a research agenda to explore the consequences and realities of modern society. Walter Benjamin, Theodore W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and other scholars worked to develop a large body of work that challenged the possibility of objective knowledge and highlighted the tremendous influence that social and historical circumstances exert on everything.
Members of the school were forced to flee Germany in 1933, eventually landing at Columbia University in New York City. Their work, now known as Critical Theory, lived on to influence thinkers in a broad range of theoretical traditions, including feminist, postcolonial, and queer theory.
Another example comes to us from the 1980s, when AIDS activists channeled their anger over the government’s refusal to address the crisis that had killed tens of thousands of gay men. A group called the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) began a multi-pronged campaign of demonstrations, militant activism, and research in response to the epidemic. The group “ended up turning what had begun as kind of a political magazine into one of the more important venues for HIV-AIDS research,” says Navon.
Faced with a crisis that was ravaging their community, and a scientific establishment that had proven unresponsive, members of ACT UP “leveraged their moral authority as people who could say ‘We’re dying, and for you to say that we need to wait for the double-blind clinical trial process to work its way out is an abomination,’” Navon adds.
Agnew and her collaborators aren’t working from such a dire situation, but she does see that the planet and the global population are facing crises that ordinary science, with its interest in studying existing human behavior as opposed to behavior in new or special circumstances, might not be able to solve.
Academic scientists “tend to look at humans and how they behave and to take that for granted as if that’s how humans inherently behave,” she says. If humanity is going to live up to its potential, she believes we have to move beyond asking how humans behave, and start asking how humans can behave.
The experimental dinner parties are just one of the Social Observatory’s attempts at “studying human primates in the wild,” as their tagline reads. The group’s more ambitious project is located upstairs, in the Red Vic’s hotel rooms. There, the social science hotel offers guests the chance to participate in longer experiments.
“The goal is to end up with a fully kitted-out building with sensors that are tracking where people are going,” explains Agnew. Ultimately, she’d like to develop a social science platform where people could spend up to a month taking part in experiments. The dream, she says, is “an actual observatory” that attracts guests from around the world “who are interested in being part of, and designing, experiments that are relevant to our collective future.”
Grant Currin is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. His work has appeared in National Geographic, the Huffington Post, Live Science, and Hakai Magazine. Find him on Twitter @grantcurrin.
This article was edited by Lydia Laurenson and lightly fact-checked by our editorial team. There's more about our transparency process at our page about truth and transparency at The New Modality.