If you wanted to listen in on unsuspecting young university students’ talks without their knowledge or agreement before the introduction of commercial tape recorders, you had to get a bit clever. In 1938, a group of psychologists sought to find out if adults are just as narcissistic as babies are it came to language. They felt that as people age, they quit utilizing “egocentric” communication, such as frequently interjecting personal information into conversations.
Apart from the mystery of how they had become professors of psychology without ever meeting a single person, they had to overcome another challenge if they were to figure it out, how can we listen in on people’s conversations without interfering with the study.
The solution, or at least a part of it, was to stalk the streets, eavesdropping on anybody they could and collecting notes. They noted in their study, “Remarks were gathered in waiting rooms and hotel lobbies, streetcars, theaters, and restaurants,” which is good. “Unwitting subjects were chased in the streets, department stores, even at home,” which was a bit more morally dubious.
However, it was when they casually chose to conceal beneath the mattresses in students’ dormitories that they crossed the ethical line. The psychiatrists slithered beneath the beds, like the bogeyman, and waited there with their notepads, ready to eavesdrop on some children. They waited until the kids had a tea party and took silent notes from their hiding places, like; let us face it, some type of killer.
It is unclear how reliable the discussions taped beneath the bed were, given that the students were clearly going to be chatting loudly and attempting to seem normal when one of them called the cops. However, the information they did obtain was mostly useless.
They were able to take notes of conversations every 15 seconds while they were just chasing individuals around the streets, or listening into the restrooms of students (another thing they did), or listening in to their phone calls (again, if it wasn’t apparent, these people didn’t care about privacy). They could not do it under the bed because the kids would ask, “Hey, what the heck is that scratching noise every 15 seconds?” As a result, they ended up having committed some type of minor offense (I guess the penalty for filming someone without their knowledge is not a cop yelling “get out of here you little scamp”) for no apparent reason.
Thankfully, they had gathered enough information from the students’ restrooms and listening in on their phone conversations to conclude that they, too, were as self-absorbed as babies had. “The current study demonstrates that adults, like toddlers, talk about themselves, their activities, and their viewpoints,” they concluded. However, given all they had gone through to find it out, I would scream, how dare you be so judgmental?