The Power of Conformity: 1962 Episode of Candid Camera Reveals the Strange Psychology of Riding Elevators

Watch tele­vi­sion cre­ator Allen Funt pre­dict flash mobs in the 1962 episode of Can­did Cam­era above, filmed some forty years before Harp­er’s mag­a­zine edi­tor, Bill Wasik, found­ed the move­ment with anony­mous­ly e‑mailed instruc­tions for a coor­di­nat­ed pub­lic action.

The stunt, enti­tled “Face the Rear,” was pulled off by a hand­ful of “agents”—a phrase coined by Improv Everywhere’s founder Char­lie Todd to describe the pok­er-faced par­tic­i­pants con­jur­ing a secret­ly agreed upon alter­nate real­i­ty to con­found (and not always delight) its tar­get sub­ject, along with unsus­pect­ing bystanders.

Com­pared to the grand-scale the­atrics that have trans­formed an upscale mar­ket into a scene from La Travi­a­ta and infil­trate sub­ways world­wide with thou­sands of pants-less rid­ers every year, this prank is quite sub­tle in the exe­cu­tion.

It suc­ceeds on our tac­it under­stand­ing of what con­sti­tutes prop­er ele­va­tor behav­ior when oth­ers pas­sen­gers are present. Left to our own devices, we can sing, dance, and let the mask of pro­pri­ety slip in any num­ber of ways. Once oth­ers enter? We share the space and face for­ward.

But what if every­one who enters inex­plic­a­bly faces the back wall?

What would you do?

As hypo­thet­i­cals go, this one’s not near­ly so weighty as con­sid­er­ing whether you’d have fol­lowed the script of Stan­ley Milgram’s obe­di­ence exper­i­ments or put your own fam­i­ly at risk by hid­ing Anne Frank.


For the sub­jects of Can­did Cam­era’s ele­va­tor gag, the pres­sure to suc­cumb to group think quick­ly over­ruled years of learned phys­i­cal behav­ior.

And nor­ma­tive ele­va­tor phys­i­cal­i­ty def­i­nite­ly springs from social cues, as John Dono­van, host of NPR’s “Around the Nation” said, in an inter­view with Lee Gray, author of From Ascend­ing Rooms to Express Ele­va­tors: A His­to­ry of the Pas­sen­ger Ele­va­tor in the 19th Cen­tu­ry:

I know a psy­chol­o­gist who works with teenagers who have autism who—he uses encour­ag­ing to learn skills that will allow them to be inde­pen­dent in the world to get out on their own. And one of his lessons with some of the teenagers is what to do in an ele­va­tor because he says that the typ­i­cal kid that he works with, when the door is opened, and he’s been told that he should step inside, will step inside and face the back wall because nobody has told him that every­body else in the ele­va­tor is going to turn around and face the front doors…

Can­did Camera’s stunts were always framed as com­e­dy, though its cre­ator, Funt, was well versed in psy­chol­o­gy, hav­ing served as child psy­chol­o­gist Kurt Lewin’s research assis­tant at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty.

In an arti­cle for the Archive of Amer­i­can Tele­vi­sion, writer Amy Loomis iden­ti­fied five premis­es into which the aver­age Can­did Cam­era gag could fall:

  1. Revers­ing nor­mal or antic­i­pat­ed pro­ce­dures
  2. Expos­ing basic human weak­ness­es such as igno­rance or van­i­ty
  3. Using the ele­ment of sur­prise
  4. Ful­fill­ing fan­tasies
  5. Plac­ing some­thing in a bizarre or inap­pro­pri­ate set­ting

“Face the Rear” was a case where con­for­mi­ty born of an unex­pect­ed rever­sal in nor­mal pro­ce­dure yield­ed laughs, at the gen­tle expense of a series of unsus­pect­ing sub­jects, whose solo rides were dis­rupt­ed by a bunch of Can­did Cam­era oper­a­tives.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Footage from the Psy­chol­o­gy Exper­i­ment That Shocked the World: Milgram’s Obe­di­ence Study (1961)

The Lit­tle Albert Exper­i­ment: The Per­verse 1920 Study That Made a Baby Afraid of San­ta Claus & Bun­nies

This is Your Brain on Sex and Reli­gion: Exper­i­ments in Neu­ro­science

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her play Zam­boni Godot is open­ing in New York City in March 2017. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.


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