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Ten Unusual Experiments in the Name of Science – The Black Bag Experiment

Ten Unusual Experiments in the Name of Science – The Black Bag Experiment

Sometimes, in order to become listed as one of the weirdest scientific experiments of all time, conducting actual research isn’t even necessary. In the late sixties, one guy’s strange choice of clothing led to a national media circus and a publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  On February 27, 1967 the Associated Press carried the following story from Corvallis:

“A mysterious student has been attending a class at Oregon State University for the past two months enveloped in a big black bag. Only his bare feet show. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11:00 A.M. the Black Bag sits on a small table near the back of the classroom. The class is Speech 113 – basic persuasion… Charles Goetzinger, professor of the class, knows the identity of the person inside. None of 20 students in the class do. Goetzinger said the students’ attitude changes from hostility toward the Black Bag to curiosity and finally to friendship.”

Black Bags for a better world
This was a pretty accurate circumscription of what was going on.  What was still unclear at the time,  however, was the purpose of the Black Bag.  According to The Daily Barometer, the university’s own newspaper that first reported the story, the idea for the black bag originated from a nationally syndicated editorial that quoted Anthony Cox, the founder of the Black Bag Movement. Cox was quoted as saying, “the world would be better off if everyone wore a large, black, cloth bag.” Professor Goetzinger, although supportive of the Black Bag, claimed to not be involved in his unusual clothing choice.

Hype becomes science
The publication by the Associated Press generated a true media circus. After the university gave its consent for media coverage, reporters from all over the country showed up in class – outnumbering the actual students.  The story was also picked up by social psychologist Robert Zajonc, who was then collecting evidence to back up his “mere-exposure effect”  theory – the psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. Although the 20 students had first openly rejected the Black Bag, they later did warm up to him and even protected him from the excessive media attention. Being intrigued by this (although merely anecdotal) evidence, Zajonc uses the incident as an introduction to his paper.

As for the person in the bag: his identity was never discovered. At the end of the semester he simply stopped showing up in class, and he (or at least his bag) was never seen on campus again.

Read (open access) study

ZAJONC, R. (1968). ATTITUDINAL EFFECTS OF MERE EXPOSURE. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9 (2, Pt.2), 1-27 DOI: 10.1037/h0025848

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