A Collection of Psychological Experiments

A Collection of Psychological Experiments.

Ethics, morals and legalities do appear to get in the way of a good psychological experiment these days. Instead they appear to have been replaced by other experiments exploring other bizarre extremes such as Candid Camera, The Jerry Springer Show and Tony Blair. Briefly described here are a few of the classic and great psychological experiments in times past – to learn more about these, follow the links provided – they will all open in a separate window.

The “Little Albert” Experiment Video

This was a landmark in psychology experimentation and the evolution of psychological research ethics. History here (Wikipedia)

Stanford Prison Experiment 1973.
Philip Zimbardo.

Legend has it that it was Philip Zimbardo’s girlfriend that stopped this experiment after just six days of the possible two weeks. Arriving on the scene on day five into the study, Christina Maslach was privileged to witness the depraved scenes raw, rather than filtered through 5 days of desensitisation. Zimbardo and Maslach went on to marry, but that’s a different story.

Zimbardo had rigged up a mock prison within the basement of the Stanford University. Twenty four thoroughly screened young and healthy subjects volunteered to be randomly assigned into one of two groups for the study. One half of the group would play the role of ‘prisoner,’ the other half would play the role of ‘prison guard’.

The study went swimmingly well – within just two days of the experiment four of the ‘prisoners’ were released owing to severe emotional reactions – rage, depression, crying and severe anxiety – and a fifth was released after he manifested a severe “psychosomatic rash”. Meanwhile, most of the ‘guards’ appeared to be quite enjoying their part in the proceedings and clearly had no intention of quitting. After all, from a guards perspective, this could be fun!

Zimbardo offered the remaining prisoners the possibility of “parole” in return for a wavering of the fee that Zimbardo agreed to pay. Only two declined this offer. The severe reactions observed in the ‘prisoner’ group is in part due to the lack of possible foresight into the behaviours of those designated “guards” and the resultant conditions imposed – Zimbardo writes:

“None of the guards ever failed to come to work on time for their shift, and indeed, on several occasions, guards remained on duty voluntarily and uncomplaining for extra hours – without additional pay…some went far beyond their roles to engage in creative cruelty and harassment”

One can only suppose that those who volunteered couldn’t have had any conception of the nature of the events that would unfold during the experiment. One curious feature is that although it was ‘just an experiment’ and any volunteer could quit at any time, those in the prisoner role didn’t ‘just quit’ – in order to escape the situation, they applied for “parole”. Zimbardo comments that strong social forces were in operation and that people fell into their respective roles very quickly. The lack of people ‘just quitting’ attests to the power of obedience and how well people will stick to ‘the rules’ that are presented to them, as illustrated by Milgram’s experiments, summarized later.

Philip Zimbardo Homepage.
Details about Zimbardo’s various ongoing projects.

Barlow and Durand’s Sexual Anxiety Experiment.

They never told about this one in college. Authors of the excellent book, “Abnormal Psychology” (ISBN: 981-4057-04-5) they describe their experiment involving a laboratory, pornography and a nice series of electric shocks. In an attempt to examine the mechanisms of sexual performance anxiety in young men a group of volunteers were given what is described as a “harmless but somewhat painful” electric shock, then shown a porn film. Sadly, we are not told the title of the film. Divided into three groups, the first were told to lay back and enjoy the film – there were no further shocks for them to receive. A second group were informed that they would stand a 60% chance of receiving the shock sometime during the film, no matter what. Naturally, everyone was rigged up with the relevant contraptions to measure erection size and strength.

This is the best part: The third lucky group were told that they stood a 60% of receiving the shock if they didn’t achieve the average level of arousal achieved by the previous groups! Thus, theoretically placing the subject under pressure to perform to a certain level of sexual arousal similar to the performance anxiety experienced by some men.

The results of this are not exactly surprising given the context – The third group did, in fact, achieve on average a greater arousal level than the previous two groups!

I shall leave it to the NLP practitioner to work out the reasons for this outcome.

Rosenhan’s Fake Psychiatric Patient Study.
“On Being Sane In Insane Places.”

Also in 1973, Rosenhan carried out what is possibly one of the most important studies into psychiatric care ever carried out.

Sending eight healthy volunteers (three women, five men) into hospitals, these “sane” volunteers gained a first-hand experience of what these places are like from a patient’s perspective.

In total twelve hospitals received the pseudo-patients who reported at psychiatric interview that they heard an unfamiliar voice saying “empty”, “hollow” and “thud” in order to gain admission. Only once was admission refused. Once admitted to the hospitals, none of the pseudo-patients fabricated anything further. The aim was to then receive a diagnosis of “sane” and to be released as soon as possible.

The average duration of stay was nineteen days, the range being between seven and fifty-two (52!!) days. What was interesting was that no staff spotted the pseudo-patients as being fakes (unlike many of the real patients and visitors) and that a great many of the normal behaviours were interpreted as being deviant. My favourite being the diagnosis of one psychiatrist upon the bored patients seen queuing outside the cafeteria half an hour prior to it’s opening as a demonstration of the “oral acquisitive nature of their syndromes.” (!!!!)

None of the fake patients was ever declared sane, but were all released on a diagnosis of “schizophrenia in remission”!

Rosenhan’s study understandably upset a great number of mental health professionals who suggested that they themselves view their patients objectively and took offence at the implication that mental health professionals perceive their patients according to the needs and norms of the institution. Rosenhan answered this with a follow-up study whereby two hospitals were selected to receive a number of pseudo-patients over the following three months.

Not a single pseudopatient was admitted of course but this didn’t deter one psychiatrist suggesting 23 patients as being fake, and another 41 patients being singled out by at least one staff member.

The Stanford Prison Experiment – Still powerful after all these years. 
Article from the Stanford News website. Brilliant discussion of the experiment.

Milgram’s Obedience Experiment.

“The experiment must continue,” the researcher told the nervous subject, who did as he was told and delivered what he thought was a severe or potentially fatal electric shock to the other ‘subject’.

In 1961, Milgram began a series of experiments that would investigate the effect of authority over free will and examine the “I was just following orders” legal defence. Creating a situation where the guinea pig subject would deliver an increasingly painful electric shock to another person (actually a confederate), Milgram discovered that he could quickly reduce a confident businessman to a “twitching, stuttering wreck…approaching nervous collapse” in less than twenty minutes, simply by telling him that the experiment must continue.

The faked shock would be “delivered” to a confederate who was purportedly also assisting in a study on learning. As far as the subject was concerned, a shock would be delivered by him to another test subject whenever the other test subject (the confederate) made a mistake in a learning experiment. The voltage of the shock would be incrementally increased as the faked subject continued to make mistakes. The meter and switches operated by the real test subject indicated that the shocks ranged from “slight shock” to “DANGER: Severe Shock” and beyond.

Various arrangements were tried out with regards to the placement of the researcher, ranging from the researcher being in the same room as the test subject, to having the researcher on the telephone and giving the orders. Similarly, the placement of the confederate purportedly receiving the shocks was also varied from being in a different room, being behind a screen and in the same room and also on the end of a telephone. This variation in the location of the confederate would vary the intensity of the feedback of the purported shock delivered by the test subject.

What was alarming about the study was that average and normal everyday subjects, despite their own discomfort and the wails and cries of the confederate, approximately two-thirds of all subjects delivered the maximum punishment shock – simply because they were told that the experiment must continue. None of them knew that the shock was not actually being given to the confederate. A follow-up study where the subject was required to actually hold the hand of the reluctant confederate onto a shock plate whilst they delivered a high voltage found that one third were willing to do this despite the severe discomfort both they themselves and the confederate purportedly possessed! Unlike Zimbardo’s experiment, however, in these experiments, the subjects didn’t display satisfaction/comfort with the position they seemingly held over another.

Stanley Milgram Biographical Homepage.
Maintained by Professor Thomas Blass, this developing site gives an overview of Milgram and his work. Also, this site links to another where you can purchase the original films made by Milgram.

Page briefly reviewing the Milgram experiment and punishment/learning.