The breaching experiment is a simple yet ingenious social psychology technique that explores people’s adherence to the unwritten social norms of society. The experiment was developed by sociologist Harold Garfinkel and has become a favorite tool in teaching sociology and psychology students about the strength of social norms and social conformity.

Breaching experiments are planned and deliberate breaks of a commonly accepted social norm. The researcher or the student, after performing the break, observes and records the reactions of the people who witnessed the break. The reaction to the breach is the crucial point of the experiment. If a breach is done correctly and the social norm is compromised, the reaction that people exhibit is the mechanism by which they try to make sense of the odd behavior or how they combat the behavior. Lighthearted breaches can induce laughter, confusion, and curiosity. More serious breaches can actually cause anxiety and anger.

In order to demonstrate the concept of the breaching experiment, Garfinkel famously instructed his sociology students to act as lodgers when they went home to their parents. Students were excessively polite to their parents, asked permission to use the restroom, and pretended to be ignorant of the comings and goings of the household. Parents were reported to be distraught and generally bewildered, some were even angry at their children’s behavior.

Although breaching experiments essentially break the rules of society, they do not make a traumatic mark on the witnesses. The reactions that they exhibit are part of a repairing process. Unconsciously, the witnesses rationalize the breach in order to maintain the sense of a stable social order. As easily as the social norm is broken, it is repairable. It is this precariousness and maintainability of social reality that Garfinkel highlights. The breaching experiment also tests what behavior is accepted as a social norm. Since social norms are culturally dependent a breach done successfully in one country may not have any effect in another.

Breaching experiments can be easily conducted by anyone with a healthy curiosity in the social psychological workings of society. Breaches are characteristically low budget and do not require much time and planning to carry out. Popular examples of breaching experiments have been to stand backwards in the elevator, negotiating the price of food at the grocery store, starting a conversation at a public bathroom, and ordering something not on the menu of a restaurant. The first step in conducting a breaching experiment is to identify a social norm to break.

It is important to not confuse breaching experiments with crimes. Although they both work under the concept of breaking social norms, proper breaches are harmless and generally good-natured. They are commonly aimed at etiquette norms concerning how one should act in public.

Breaching experiments are an appropriate and fun way for teachers and professors to get their students involved with social and psychological theories and concepts. The methodology of the breaching experiment may be simple and basic, but it teaches a rich lesson about social norms, social order, and the unwritten rules of society that people take for granted.

Gordon Watts