Edmond Rostand’s famous play Cyrano de Bergerac has been translated and adapted into countless stage productions, films, ballets, operas, and books, but perhaps the most fascinating thing to come of the 1897 work is psychologist Stanley Milgram’s concept of the 'cyranoid', named after the titular character.
Milgram gained recognition –and notoriety –for his 1970s obedience experiments, such as one in which people were convinced to deliver electric shocks to other innocent people at the behest of an authority. His cyranoid theory is not as well known, but has received more attention as of late. The Cyrano from the play whispered his own words of poetry into his proxy’s ear, who then spoke the words to the woman they both loved. Milgram wondered if technology could accomplish the same thing, and so conducted experiments in which a “source” spoke into a microphone and a “shadower” -- that is, a 'cyranoid' -- listened through a hidden earpiece and repeated what they heard.
Milgram claimed that a person who met a cyranoids would not be able to tell. One of the experiments consisted of 11 and 12 year olds speaking to teachers, who did not know that the children they were cyranoids, rather than merely intelligent. Milgram asked the National Science Foundation in 1979 for a $200,000 grant to conduct further experiments and publish the results, but the grant was rejected. He later moved on from the project.
Two contemporary British social psychologists, Alex Gillespie and Kevin Corti, decided to recreate the experiment. They had a female source speak into a microphone connected to a radio in a male shadower’s pocket, who also wore a discreet inner-ear audio device. The male shadower engaged in 20 encounters with an unknowing “interactant” in which he was a cyranoid –i.e., the female source spoke for him. He also engaged in 20 encounters in which he spoke freely, without any outside interference. The results suggested that Milgram was onto something: no one remarked the person with whom they were conversed acted oddly, and all expressed a degree of astonishment when debriefed. One writer for Discover magazine praised the experiment, stating, “It’s a truly interesting paper – based on an even more fascinating method. The implications of the cyranic illusion are quite disturbing – but these experiments only scratch the surface. The volunteers in these studies had never met either the shadower or the source before. But what if they had? Would that make the illusion easier to detect?”
Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab said the results of Corti and Gillespie’s experiment are not surprising, especially nowadays. Wired magazine quoted the scientist and provided further examples: “‘What’s changed since times of Milgram is that this identity replacement has become the norm for online interactions.’” From online games to online dating sites, people act through virtual versions of themselves (or assumed virtual identities) more and more.”