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Classic Experiments in Psychology
As Psychology moved further away from philosophy towards science, more and more experiments began to be conducted. These experiments revealed important insights into the nature of human behavior. Some of these revelations are taken for granted in the modern world as their findings are now widely known. However, at the time, they were quite controversial.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted in August 1971 by Philip Zimbardo, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. The experiment aimed to examine the psychological impact of a prison environment on prisoners and guards.
To test this, Zimbardo built a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University. A group of 24 participants were randomly assigned to the positions of guards or prisoners, and Zimbardo assumed the role of a prison superintendent. All participants were prescreened and considered “normal, healthy college students who were predominantly middle-class and white.” The prisoners were taken from their homes, handcuffed by real police officers and taken to the mock prison where they were stripped and degreased. Inmates stayed in the jail 24 hours a day while guards only worked an eight-hour shift and then went home. All participants received $15 per day, funded in part by the US Navy.
Guards wore mirrored sunglasses, a khaki uniform, a cane and a whistle, while prisoners wore a robe with an ID number sewn on the front and back, a stocking cap and a chain around their ankles. The uniforms were designed to dehumanize the guards and prisoners while making the guards appear to have complete control over the prisoners’ lives. The guards were instructed to “maintain a reasonable degree of order” but almost immediately began abusing their position. The guards forced the prisoners to perform exercises, stripped and degraded them, took away their mattresses and forced them to sleep on the concrete and punished the prisoners by making them urinate and defecate in a bucket in their cells but not allowing a bucket to empty. They were really immersed in their role.
The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but ended after only 6 days. At that time, five prisoners had already been released due to severe depression. Zimbardo himself became so immersed in his role as prison superintendent that he found his ability to be impartial was severely impaired. Zimbardo had to be confronted by Professor Christina Maslach (whom he would later marry) about the ethical issues of the experiment before he realized that he had breached his duty of care to these young participants and ended the study. This experiment cemented Zimbardo’s idea that good people, if put into bad environments, can be capable of great evil. Zimbardo named this phenomenon “The Lucifer Effect”.
Milgram and obedience
After World War II, the surviving Nazis were tried for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials. A common defense for them was to say they were “just following orders.” Thus, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University devised an experiment to test whether someone could be susceptible to this or if the Germans were unusually obedient to their superiors.
Milgram began the experiments in July 1961. He advertised in the newspaper to male participants an experiment on “learning”. There were three people involved: the experimenter, the teacher (participant) and the student (actor). The teacher and the student would then be separated in different rooms where they can communicate but not see each other. The Master believed that the Apprentice’s cognitive abilities were being tested, but in reality, it was the Master’s obedience to authority. The student was supposedly attached to electrodes and each time they gave an incorrect answer, the teacher administered an electric shock that increased in severity with each incorrect answer. Shocks went from 15 volts (Mild) to 450 volts (Death). The teacher will receive a sample electric shock before starting to feel the pain caused to the student.
As the tension rose so did the intensity of the Apprentice’s screams. If the teacher questioned the study at any point, the experimenter would give 4 answers, continuing with the next each time they were questioned. They were:
2: The experiment requires you to continue.
3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
4: You have no choice but to continue.
About two-thirds of the participants went on to the lethal 450-volt shock while the rest went on to at least a very painful 300 volts. Milgram would carry out several separate variations of the experiment, changing the location, the proximity between the student and the teacher, etc. However, although proximity decreased the likelihood that participants would continue to 450 volts, 30% of participants still administered lethal shocks. The experiment showed that ordinary people could commit acts of serious violence just because an authority figure ordered them to do so.
Asch and Conformity
In 1951, Solomon Asch conducted experiments at Swarthmore College. Asch recruited male college students to participate in tasks to measure their perceptual abilities. They would be shown a picture of a line followed by another picture with three lines labeled “A”, “B”, “C” and they would have to match the original line with the line of the same length in the second picture. Participants would sit around a table and call out their answer in turn. However, there was a catch: only one of them was actually a participant, the other participants were all actors, and the experiment was to examine group conformity, not perception.
This line task was repeated about 16 times with different lines each time. In the first two times, the participant and the actors gave the same, correct, answer. After this, the actors gave the same, wrong answer to see if the participant would adjust to their answer despite knowing they were right.
In the end, 75% of participants gave at least one wrong answer with 5% conforming to group pressure and 25% never. Those who agreed later stated that they did so out of doubt or lack of self-confidence with some reason that their judgment should be impaired and thus, they answered according to the majority.
Harlow and Attachment
In the 1950s, traditional psychologists believed that classical conditioning was the basis for the bond between a mother and her child. The idea is for the child to bond with the mother because the mother fed the child. During this time, John Bowlby disagreed. Instead, he believed that a mother and child have a unique bond that is more complicated than a conditioned response. Psychologist Harry Harlow began experiments using rhesus monkeys to test these hypotheses.
The experiments began with the isolation of young rhesus monkeys. The monkeys were kept alone in isolation chambers for 3, 6, 12 and 24 months. This caused the monkeys to engage in strange behavior, such as circling their cages or self-mutilation. When the monkeys were released and tried to integrate back into normal monkey populations, they had severe problems socializing. They were often bullied by the other monkeys. However, the monkeys showed attachment to the cloth pads covering the cage floor and would exhibit tantrums if the cloths were removed.
After that, Harlow began to conduct a different kind of experiment. Harlow and his students developed a surrogate mother for rhesus monkeys. The mother was a block of wood covered in rubber with a soft cloth on the outside and a light bulb behind it to radiate heat. It was designed to be comfortable for monkeys. A second substitute was later developed, but it was only a bare thread and quite uncomfortable. The two surrogates were placed in the baby monkeys’ cages, separated from each other. For four of the monkeys, the wire mother provided food and the cloth mother did not. For four others, the cloth mother provided food and the wire mother did not.
Harlow discovered that all the monkeys spent most of their time with the cloth mother. Those that were fed by the wire mother only left the cloth mother to feed and those that were fed by the cloth mother almost never visited the wire mother. Also, when frightened, the monkeys would almost always run to the cloth mother instead of the wire mother. These findings demonstrate that contact comfort is essential for the formation of a strong child-mother bond. This goes against the behaviorist view which considered this attachment to be the result of the mother nurturing the child.
These experiments changed the fabric of modern psychology. They introduced new theories that challenged the current paradigm and caused Psychology to introduce ethical testing methods after witnessing the negative effect of sloppy psychological testing. Each of these Psychologists made contributions to their respective fields that went down in history. So, to all budding psychologists: say and make history.
Asch, SE (1951). Effects of peer pressure on judgment modification and distortion. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child tied to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.
Haney, C., Banks, WC, & Zimbardo, PG (1973). A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Review, 30, 4-17.
Harlow, HF and Zimmermann, RR (1958). The development of affective responsiveness in infant monkeys. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 102,501 -509.
Milgram, S. (1963). Obedience behavior study. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
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