Academic August: classic psychology experiments

If you haven’t read it, read my post here about what Academic August is and why I’m doing it!

This week I am bringing you two classic psychology experiments. They are both very famous, so there’s a good chance you’ve heard about them. But they are two of my favourites so I wanted to highlight them anyway.


Stanley Milgram and the obedience study

These infamous experiments were conducted in 1961 at Yale university by Stanley Milgram, and were first described by Milgram in 1963.

The premise was pretty simple: he wanted to test obedience in people. This was conducted in a fairly brilliant way. Unethical, but still brilliant. There were two sets of people: teachers and learners. Both groups were brought into a room where the learner was hooked to an electrical machine. The teacher was then brought into another room where they could converse with the learner. In front of the teacher was a control panel. They were to read the learner a question, and if the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher was to flip one of the switches, administering an electrical shock to the learner. Next time they would increase the voltage.

Important to note is all the learners were actors. No one was actually being shocked; however, the teachers were blinded to this and believed they were shocking another person.

The control panel had markings on it indicating where unconsciousness and death would occur. The teachers were encouraged to continue, until they got to the end of the panel and questions. They were to administer a 450-volt shock, three times, and that was the end of the experiment.

Sixty-five percent (65%) of people went to the end. Sixty-five percent of participants knowingly killed another person when told to do so.

Things to take into consideration: the population of this (particular) study was exclusively white males. It was a highly controlled environment. The teachers were isolated except for the experimenter telling them they had to continue. Therefore the generalizability is not very high. However, it has been replicated in different situations around the world with similar results.

Read about it here and here! There are also videos of the participants, however they can be slightly disturbing so I’d advise against watching them.


Philip Zimbardo and Stanford Prison Experiment

Again, another well-known and infamous study. In 1971, Zimbardo wanted to see whether it was inherent traits that made people abusive. To determine this, he divided volunteers into guards and prisoners. The participants adopted these roles for a 7- to 14-day period. The guards were given wooden batons and special quarters, and instructions not to physically harm or withhold food or drink from the prisoners, but to illicit feelings of boredom, fear, loneliness, etc. The prisoners were “arrested” from their homes, and were given a small room with a cot, and were dressed and acted like prisoners.

On the second prisoners attempted to revolt, to which the guards decided to use psychological tactics to control the prisoners. Some of the things they did were really horrible. Prisoners had to repeat their ID number. They were told to chant the ID number of other prisoners to degrade them. They had to defecate in a bucket. Mattresses were taken away as punishment. They were put in isolation. These tactics worked, and Zimbardo had to halt the experiment after only 6 days.

It was only halted after a female graduate student, who was called in to conduct interviews with the guards and prisoners, questioned the conditions of the prison. Of the 50+ people to see the prison, she was the only one to object and whose objections were taken seriously.

Zimbardo suggested that these results provide support for situational attribution, that we assume a different personality depending on the situation rather than our disposition. However, other suggestions have been made.

Sidenote: if this experiment ever comes up in conversation, and the person talking about it says it shows that “human nature is mean, we’re ruthless, violent, etc.” or something along that nature, it’s really fun to suggest that they’re actually just talking about the nature of straight, white, middle-class, young men, since once again that was the population of interest here. Just do it, please.

Read about it here on Zimbardo’s website!


That’s all for this week’s Academic August! Hopefully you enjoyed learning about these experiments and found them interesting!
Thanks for reading! xx

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