Even if you have no interest in psychology, learning about some famous psychology experiments can teach you tons about society and how people work. Psychologists are constantly searching for the underlying reasons people act the way they do. Some of these experiments have taught us about basic human behaviors that we can see in our everyday life. Some of these famous psychology experiments might not be considered “ethical” by today’s standards, but they were very important not only for the psychological community, but for all.
One of the most famous psychology experiments was also considered one of the most unethical. Stanford psychologist Phillip Zimbardo turned a basement into a fake prison and filled it with regular college students. Half were given the role of prisoners and half were given the role of guards. Zimbardo wanted to test how situation impacts behavior. He never in a million years expected that these normal college students would take their roles so seriously. The guards began to harass the prisoners and the prisoners started to become overwhelmingly stressed and anxious. The study was originally intended to last 14 days but was cut short after 6 days because the situation became too intense to continue. Zimbardo had unknowingly discovered how our situations have a profound impact on our behavior, and sometimes not in the best way.
Stanley Milgram wanted to test how obedience influenced behavior. He placed participants in a room with a “scientist” watching over them. The participants were told to administer small electrical shocks to another participant in a separate room if they gave the wrong answer to a question. For every wrong question, the shock level would increase, until it reached very dangerous levels. These participants kept on administering shocks well beyond comforting levels. Even when they were concerned for the well being of the other participants, if Milgram told them to continue with the experiment, they would. Milgram found out that regular people would continue to shock total strangers just because an authority figure told them to, sometimes without even question. Only after Milgram revealed that the participant receiving the shocks was an actor, did the participants realized the influence authority had on them blindly following orders.
We all like to think that we would go against the grain and stand up for what is right, but the Asch Conformity Experiment shows that that is not always the case. Solomon Asch filled a room with one real participant and the rest fake "participants" who were all a part of the study. The “random” group was presented with two cards, one with a single line and one with three lines. They were asked to identify the two matching lines. The group of “participants” would all purposely choose one of the clearly wrong matching lines, and in most cases, the actual participant would go along with that answer. They knew that the answer was incorrect, but they were too afraid to not conform to the group.
Albert Bandura was curious as to how children learn their behavior as they grow up. He placed a child in the same room as adults and filled the room with toys, including a Bobo doll. He had the adult hit and kick the doll aggressively while the child watched. The child then modeled the adult and spent their time acting aggressively towards the doll. Bandura concluded that children learn their behavior by watching adults and modeling it after them. It is particularly important to pay attention to this experiment if you have children and want them to learn appropriate behavior. They pay attention to everything you do and will take after your behavior.
Another important study for parents to pay attention to was Harry Harlow's Monkey Experiment. He wanted to ascertain the largest influence in building attachment between a baby and its mother. He placed a baby monkey into a cage with two “mothers.” One was made of wire and provided a bottle filled with milk, while the other was made of cloth and provided no nourishment. Harlow was under the impression that the monkey would gravitate towards the wire monkey because she provided him with food. He was surprised to learn that when not feeding, the monkey preferred to be with the cloth mother. He concluded that while nourishment is important, attachment between a child and mother is better developed through touch and comfort.
If you have ever read “Lord of the Flies” then you have probably wondered if real children would create such rigid groups and create stereotypes between groups. A group of 21 boys were taken to a camp in Oklahoma and divided into two groups. Each group did not know the other group existed and were given activities to build team cohesion. After a few days, the groups were introduced to each other and were given competitions to play against each other. The teams automatically began to act aggressively towards each other in the form of name-calling and refusal to be in the same room as each other. What is so interesting about this study is that the experimenters were able to create situations that resulted in peace between the two groups by giving them a common goal to work towards. It provided scientists with clues into how peace between two groups can be achieved.
The idea of cognitive dissonance is that we experience stress when our actions and our thoughts do not line up. The theory extols that we will go to great lengths to reduce this dissonance. Leon Festinger gave his participants the incredibly boring task of putting spools on a tray, over and over again. He had two groups, one paid group and one unpaid group. At the end of the experiment, he gave the participants a questionnaire asking them how enjoyable the task was. He found that the unpaid group enjoyed the task more than the paid group. Festinger figured that the unpaid group had a higher enjoyment of the task because of cognitive dissonance. They disliked the task but continued with it anyway and they needed their thoughts to reflect this behavior. The paid group already had their justification to continue the experiment so they did not have to adjust their thoughts to reduce cognitive dissonance.
The Little Albert Experiment was one of the most profound experiments that influenced the idea of classical conditioning and behaviorism in general. John Watson took a 9-month old baby, Albert, and placed him near a white rat. At first, the baby had no reaction to the rat and actually seemed to like the furry animal. But after a while, Watson started to make a loud noise to startle Albert when the rat was near. Eventually, Albert began to associate the white rat with the scary noise and would begin to cry when he saw the rat, regardless of noise or not. Watson concluded that a lot of our behavior grows from associating two situations, even when only one of those situations was present.
Psychology can teach us so much about the how we act and why. No matter what your career is in or what you hobbies are, having a basic understanding of these famous psychological experiments can help you navigate everyday life. What did you think of these important psychology experiments? Do you know of any other psychology experiments that had interesting findings? Do you think these psychology experiments were unethical or were their findings worth the risks?
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