What "Sleep No More" and the Stanford Prison Experiment Can Tell Us About Immersive Storytelling and Human Nature

According to this freakonomics podcast of Sept. 12th, 2012, the people behind the immersive theater experience known as "Sleep No More" (produced by Punchdrunk, a theater company that since 2011 has dazzled audiences on West 27th Street in NYC) and a famous social psychology experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment (first conducted by Philip G. Zombardo and students at Stanford University during the summer of 1971), have both pulled aside the curtain to reveal fascinating insights into human nature and storytelling.

In particular, the behavior of participants in these experiences (in the case of Sleep No More, the audience: in the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the unwitting volunteers) - put into unfamiliar circumstances - and then stripped of individuality (in the case of Sleep No More, the audience is masked: in the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, some volunteers were dressed as prison guards) - seems to suggest some disturbing things about human nature - and the powerful impulses that can be unleashed by a certain type of immersive storytelling.

In every performance of Sleep No More, some members of the audience have behaved in transgressive ways: "Rules are established - and sometimes broken." But rarely are fundamental principles of right and wrong violated. But the Stanford Prison Experiment suggests that when totally anonymous, and given permission to do harm to others by an authority figure, the boundaries of human behavior may be pushed in deeply troubling ways.

Does "Fortune Favor the Bold?"

Does "Absolute Power Corrupt Absolutely?"

Both Sleep No More and the Stanford Prison Experiment are provocative explorations of these (and other) questions.

If you're a New World storyteller, exploring the power of immersive experiences and the rules that govern human behavior, you may find this beautifully-produced podcast inspiring. At the very least, this deeply provocative 37 minute program will get you thinking about how the audience might anonymously (e.g., online, identities can be masked) make choices that could help or harm others in a participatory storytelling environment.

Thanks to Director of External Relations at Sleep No More New York and my former student, Cesar Hawas, for the link.

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