Failing to See Money Hiding in Plain Sight

I’ve discussed ethnography, especially digital ethnography, several times here taking note that, whether we use ethnography in marketing  or design research remains irrelevant to the methods employed. What matters is whether we develop the research questions around the assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers. Ethnographers research settings, situations, and actions, with the goal of discovering surprising relationships. The most surprising relationships though are often hiding in plain sight, right under our noses.

I was recently pointed to a video from a link in the Yahoo Group Anthrodesign. The video, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, provides a unique example of insights about people we can glean from designing situations that transgress established sociocultural practices. I actually watched it three times, and not because Time listed it in the top five viral videos of the week…kind of like people (at least some people) did when the moonwalking bear video came out. Rather, my interest in it was how the mere observation of the actions taken by pedestrians leads us to experience surprise. More on this below. For now, let’s consider the video itself.

After sticking labels on 100 one dollar bills, with a unique message written on each, and clipping those dollar bills to individual leaves on a tree, Ben, Brian, and Amy video recorded how people respond to money hanging on a tree as they walk by it on a street.  The narrator, Amy,  indicates no crowds showed up to grab all the money they could get, though a few did take more than one dollar at a time. Most people who took money, a minority, pulled a couple of dollars, or one, and moved on.

(UPDATE: You will need to click on the Watch on YouTube link to see the video. Some proprietary thing I’m sure) ;-)

Amy offers two lessons learned from the Money Tree:

  1. That people routinely walk by a “tree filled with free money” without even noticing
  2. That people can look at a tree filled with money and not even see it

The Money Tree offers an example of what social psychology, but especially ethnomethodology, refers to as a breaching experiment. Breaching experiments typically involve a researcher breaking a rule about everyday life and then analyzing other people’s response. The Money Tree exemplifies a situation designed to break a tacit understanding about money and sidewalks.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees”, is a phrase most people in Chicago (the location of the Money Tree) probably know. We don’t routinely see money hanging from a tree along a sidewalk. It is certainly more common, as the bicyclist’s experience in the video shows, to see money on a sidewalk. And, I’d wager, most of us just think someone lost it. In other words, merely by setting up the situation to violate the pedestrians’ tacit knowledge of what walking down a sidewalk entails, the videographers show us something about people.

At the same time that the video offers us a surprising experience, it sure would be interesting to know what people who failed to take money were thinking. Anyone else find this interesting?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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