Did you talk to your boss today? Did you chat with someone on the bus or have a terse exchange with a barista? Maybe you did. But maybe they were cyranoids, and you were actually talking with whoever put words in their mouths. Odds are, you would never know.

The Attack of the Cyranoids

Even if you haven't seen the famous play Cyrano de Bergerac, you've almost certainly seen a parody of, or allusion to, the play's most famous scene. The eponymous Cyrano is a soldier, poet, and bon vivant, whose eloquence and style are so impressive that they almost (but not quite) make up for his freakishly large nose. He loves the beautiful Roxane, but she is infatuated by the relatively dim-witted Christian.


Christian is just smart enough to know he doesn't know what to say to Roxane, so in the play's most famous scene, Christian stands under Roxane's balcony and woos her, repeating words the Cyrano whispers to him from the bushes. It's a device that has been used in countless narratives since then, but most people have to wonder at Roxane. How can she not distinguish between the eloquent words of Cyrano and the oafery of Christian?

Stanley Milgram, of the famous Milgram Experiment, wondered more than most.

Would an observer realize that something was amiss if a person's words were controlled by someone else - a person entirely unlike the person seeming to speak? Or would they never get that they were talking with what Milgram termed a cyranoid? Because Milgram lived in the era of radio transmitters and earpieces, he didn't have to resort to nighttime balconies to do his research.


Milgram's Cyranoids and the Cyranoids of Today

Milgram decided to experiment with cyranoids in 1984, when he was given a small grant to research the subject. The set-up was fairly simple. Volunteers would come in to a room and have a conversation with someone. Generally the conversation was a subject that the volunteer knew, and was interested in. In one instance, a psychology student talked about her proposal for a psychology project.


The room had a two-way mirror, so the volunteers had to know something was up, but the volunteers didn't suspect that the person they were talking to was getting fed all their lines through a radio. In many cases, Milgram had a three or four different people take over the cyranoid during the course of the conversation. Sometimes he adjusted the experiment, pairing incongruous cyranoids and controllers. Famously, no one noticed when a 50-year-old psychology professor provided the words for a twelve-year-old boy.

People are still experimenting with cyranoids. They have a subject address a room while their body movements or their expressions are being controlled by another person. They allow longer conversations to take place, giving people more of a chance to notice changes in conversational style or in personality. For the most part, no one suspects a thing.

Craving Consistency

Milgram's conclusion, drawn from the results of the cyranoid experiments, were that people seek consistency, even when there isn't any. They don't want a twelve-year-old to have said anything that a twelve-year-old couldn't say, so they, perhaps, consider him precocious. They take the few odd mannerisms of the person talking to them from across the table to be more consistent than they actually are. They don't let a few weird moments reconfigure their estimation of a person.


Then again, how many people would be able to assess a conversational partner's whole personality during a casual talk? How many ways are there to say, "Tell me more about that," or "I like that idea"? In many ways, it would be odder if a large percentage of the cyranoids' conversational partners noticed something amiss.

Today, there's a new kind of cyranoid in the world, and the world has adjusted accordingly. We have come to expect that that college cheerleader who just IMed us might not be the person she claims to be. Few people are sending their money off to that Nigerian prince. People have started looking for inconsistencies in the wording and content of their conversational partners. The internet has made it easier to be an impostor, but has led to so many impostors that the public has become more suspicious.


Still, perhaps we need to give confused football players a break. They might have been fooled online, but most people can be fooled by the person sitting right across from them.

[Via Omni Interview With Stanley Milgram, The Man Who Shocked the World, Transformed Social Interaction and the Cyranoid.]