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10 Famous Psychological Experiments

Psychological Experiments

Today, the world of psychological experimentation is sealed with ethical and professional guidelines, regulations, and prohibitions. In the Netherlands there are institutions such as the Leiden Committee on Ethics Psychology (CEP) and you will also find regulations on ethics at a European level. For example the European Federation of Psychologists (EFPA) ethical guidelines in which a lot of things are banned or made compulsory, usually for the well-being of the participants, but also to safeguard the integrity of the field of ‘psychology’. Among other things, scientists must consider respect for the participants’ Human rights, and dignity, the scope of the researcher’s own capacity (meaning that he must stick to his field,

The American Psychology Association (APA) has also developed guidelines, in a so-called ‘code of conduct’, or a code of conduct. Here too you will find a range of rules that a researcher must comply with before he can conduct his experiment. Voluntary participation, for example.

Maybe you know the story of the Dutch Diederik Stapel, who fiddled with his data to make his publications look nicer? Ethically (both professionally) such behavior is of course absolutely irresponsible. But the above-mentioned aspects that a researcher must take into account are just a summary of the broad categories that can be found in a code of ethics. Each category has dozens of smaller rules.

In the past, psychologists had no guidelines or codes of conduct. About 60 to 50 years ago, experiments more or less came into fashion among psychologists, and many great discoveries were made at the time through experiments that would now be absolutely out of the question. Yet these experiments have been incredibly enlightening and are often quoted and quoted to this day. In short, they have had an enormous impact, both within psychology itself and beyond, among scientists and laypeople alike. Below we list a few of those very remarkable experiments…

10. Stanford Prison: The role you play affects your behavior!

In 1971, scientist Philip Zimbardo and colleagues started an experiment that is still widely known (or rather, notorious) today. They examined people’s behavior in relation to roles they assume and invited healthy young men to participate in a ‘prison life study’ for their experiment

They would earn $15 a day on this, compared to today’s standard for compensation, which is very low. Half of the participants were placed in a group of ‘detainees’, the other half in a group of ‘guards’. Everything was played as realistically as possible, so the detainees were also treated as real criminals (deloused, and humiliated). The first day everything went well, but the second day the detainees started a strike, they no longer listened to the guards.

In just a few days, these normal students turned into sadistic guards, and although the experiment was supposed to last two weeks, it was halted after five days. In the meantime, two prisoners had already been ‘forced’ out of the experiment. Zimbardo himself has become one of the most successful behavioral psychologists in recent decades, winning a Gold Medal for Progress in Psychology in 2012!

The BBC has made a good documentary about this startling experiment, which you can watch here .

9. Blue eyes: a lesson in discrimination.

Jane Elliot designed an experiment in 1968 designed to teach elementary school children what it’s like to be discriminated against. Jane was not a psychologist, but a teacher, and she saw discrimination as a big problem. Therefore, she wanted children to experience what it was like to live on the wrong side of society. A noble endeavor, perhaps, though the execution was debatable.

The children were split into two groups based on their eye color and then Jane read them “fake” scientific findings, which concluded that blue-eyed children are superior to other colored ones. That’s how they would be treated that day, Jane said. It took only one day for the proposed blue-eyed group to become more vicious and the differently-colored more insecure. The same effect occurred when the roles were reversed.

The two biggest problems with this research? First, participants were not asked whether they wanted to participate or not, and second, they were lied to. Both are absolutely forbidden in experiments these days (although exceptions can sometimes be made to lying).

Watch a video of this experiment here

8. The sample study: Learning to stutter?

Jane of number nine was from Iowa, and experiment number eight was also developed in Iowa by Wendell Johnson, several decades earlier (1939). They wanted to free the world from the phenomenon of stuttering. A commendable endeavor in itself, but the approach was dubious. Wendell and colleagues took orphans under the wing, including some who stuttered, and others who did not stutter. They then taught these young children with either positive or negative feedback, in which the latter were constantly told that they stuttered horribly (whether they actually did or not).

Their results? No effect of the way of learning on stuttering. But unfortunately on the self-confidence of the little participants! Some developed exactly the same self-confidence problems that stutterers often experience!

7. The den of robbers experiment: This is how you make enemies!

Muzafer Sherif is one of the most well-known psychologists of recent decades, and this early 1954 experiment is one of his most famous “products.” He invited boys to a summer camp before puberty and divided them into two groups. His team there tried to influence the group dynamics by, for example, stimulating constant competition between these two teams. This did not disappoint, and within days the two groups were diametrically opposed and hated each other with an intensity that was not healthy for such young children.

However, Sherif and his team also managed to turn that mood the other way, by confronting both groups of young people with problems (such as leaky pipes) that they could only overcome together. After a few such challenges, the two groups were almost totally integrated! Yet this experiment, due to lack of permission, is unthinkable in the present tense! Would you sacrifice your children to such an experiment?
This experiment is known as the “Robbers Cave Experiment” and falls under the “Realistic conflict theory”.

6. Learned helplessness: No matter how obvious the solution is…

This time an experiment that is not harmful to humans, but to animals. Dogs, to be exact. Martin Seligman and his team used dogs to show that helplessness can be learned. They put dogs in a pen with a barrier installed. The dogs were given painful electric shocks, which were preventable if they jumped the barrier. Not surprising, the dogs learned this quickly! But in a next phase the dogs were put in a kennel and whatever they did, the shocks were unavoidable. 

They were then placed back in the cage with the barrier, where they had first learned to avoid the pain by jumping over the barrier. But, instead of jumping, the dogs did nothing but whimper and crawl on the ground. Learned helplessness. Can you imagine them doing this to the neighbor’s dog or cat? Or your hamster, guinea pig, rabbit, snake, goldfish?

5. Harlow’s Monkeys: Cloths vs. Threads Mothers…

Harry Harlow experimented with young monkeys in the 1950s. He presumably realized that his experiment would not be acceptable with human babies, although this was his area of ​​interest. The monkey babies were separated from their real mothers one hour after birth and placed with two fake mothers, one made of wire, for food, and one made of cloth, for cuddling. It turned out that the monkey babies spent almost all of their time with the cloth mother, despite the wire mother feeding. In addition, if Harlow startled the monkeys, they would run to their cloth mother.

Harry also isolated monkeys from their group mates to show that when someone is isolated from the group from an early age, he/she cannot learn to function in a group later in life. In 1985, Harlow stopped these experiments at the request of the APA. However, other researchers are continuing such experiments in milder or more covert ways, although animal organizations are doing everything they can to stop this madness.

4. The Milgram Experiment: Who Dares to Go Against the Authorities?

One of the most famous experiments of the last century: the experiments of Stanley Milgram. In his experiment, he wanted to find out how it was possible that people were capable of atrocities such as in the Jewish camps in the Second World War. The idea behind his experiments (which sadly turns out to be true) is that people are very inclined to follow a figure that exudes authority.

In 1961 he started his obedience experiment. Each experiment consisted of a teacher and a student, but in fact the student was a secret collaborator of the researcher, and the teacher was the only ‘real’ participant. The teacher’s job was to ask the student (who was in a separate room, shielded by a mirror glass) questions and administer electric shocks if the answers were wrong. The height of the shocks would gradually increase as the student made more mistakes. The experiment started, the student started to make mistakes, and gradually screamed louder in pain. However, at the insistence of the researcher,

If it wasn’t an employee in the other room but a real person, with real electroshocks, the vast majority of teachers would have actually killed their student in this experiment! Disclosing this fact to participants, in retrospect, could cause emotional trauma. After all, it tells people that in theory they could have killed someone simply because a man in a white lab coat told them to!

By the way, before starting his experiments, Milgram had asked a group of psychologists to estimate how many people would go into the “perilous” area with the shocks. These so-called experts in the field of people knowledge estimate about 1 to 3%. In reality, 65% of the participants went higher than the 450 Volt.

One final note to tone down these shocking findings: Most of the teacher participants felt deeply sorry for their victims, and each participant stopped halfway through at least once to ask if they really should continue. Some participants even offered to give the participant money back if they were allowed to stop. But the experimenter was inexorable, and eventually more than half of all people succumbed to his authority!

3. Bystander effect: If others don’t do anything, why me?

In 1968, John Darley and Bibb Latane began an experiment investigating how people respond to the divided responsibility that arises when one is in a group. They had been spurred on by the murder of Kitty Genovese, a lady who was mangled over a period of about half an hour and eventually killed by an assailant, on a street where dozens of people watched, and no one sounded the alarm because everyone thought others did. would do.

Darley and Latane had participants wait in a waiting room or fill out a short questionnaire. Without informing the participant, Darley and Latane then caused all sorts of alarming things to happen in the environment, such as a situation where smoke from another room, or another participant who suddenly had a seizure. 

How quickly people reacted to such threats seemed to depend a lot on how many others were in the room. If they were alone, most participants quickly jumped into action. When there were others, and they didn’t do anything either, the participant in question almost never did anything himself! After all, others didn’t do anything, did they? Maybe it wasn’t that serious?

2. Asch Conformity: If others think so, who am I to disagree?

In 1951, Solomon Asch conducted an experiment on conformity, or agreement, which is shown when one’s own opinion is opposed to another’s opinion. One participant ended up in a group of other ‘participants’, unaware that these others were all secretly employees of Solomon. Their job was to identify the longest or the shortest of three lines. A very simple task! And yet, sometimes other contestants were wrong, just picked the wrong line. 

However, a large proportion of the real participants (37 out of 50 in total) conformed to that ‘wrong’ option once or more when the group members before them pointed to that line. Afterwards it turned out that people were not really convinced that their own answer was wrong, but that they only went with the group because they were not sure. That’s how strong peer pressure can be!

1. Little Albert: A plush phobia for good!

In 1920, this number one of the unethical experiments ever conducted by John B. Watson (one of the great thinkers behind behaviorism, a school of thought from which today’s psychology has largely evolved). Behaviorism is about learning, specifically learning to link one observation with another. Suppose you hear a click, and then get an ice cream. Soon, most will learn to associate the click with an ice cream cone. At a certain point this effect is so bad that a click can make your mouth water before you have even seen or smelled the ice cream!

Watson tested this on a 9 month old baby named Albert. The boy enjoyed (plush) animals, mainly a white rat. But Watson confronted Albert with a painfully loud noise whenever the white mouse was near. As a result, Albert developed a fear of white rats, and of almost all other animals and plush matters. And after the experiment, no one bothered to get Albert off this fear again! Forever a plush phobia!

The conditions that experiments must meet may sound pretty obvious, after all, of course you ask your participants for their voluntary participation in advance, and help them afterwards if they develop personal problems because of your experiment! Yet it is not always as easy to take into account all those ethical rules as it seems. Sometimes you do damage to participants without even knowing it (for example when you show them shocking images, this can be traumatizing when participants remember the images later). 

Sometimes it is also just difficult to inform participants about what to do in an experiment without contaminating the experiment, however, you must tell participants something about the actions in the experiment, otherwise they will not be able to make a good assessment of whether or not they want to participate). Difficult or not, these days the ethical control is much stricter, and although we can now make fewer major steps, it is nevertheless reassuring for us ‘potential participants’. You’re not going to end up in a Stanford prison experiment anytime soon…at least not as a participant in an experiment.


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