6 Amazing Psychology Experiments

We tend to think that as Human Beings we are rational creatures and that we make decisions based on facts and what is best for us (and often  those around us) in the long-run.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth, we rarely make decisions that way, even when we think otherwise.

We can easily see blind spots in other peoples thinking (which is why Life Coaching can be so successful) yet have a tendency to think we’re not victim to the same phenomenon.

We see people behave in terrible ways and we think of them as sub-human and that we could never do such terrible things.

Yet the unfortunate reality is that we all have the capability under the right (or wrong) circumstances to act in ways that would normally be abhorrent to us and completely out of character.

We have a tendency to believe that any strong gut instinct is almost certainly going to be right, when there is little correlation between the strength of feeling and the likelihood of it being proved correct.

I’m a supporter of listening to your gut with the understanding that it can, and will, be wrong on occasions.

We see people overcome terrible adversity and adapt to appalling hardship and think they are some how different to us, even heroic, and that we could never have coped.

We probably could have.

I could go on and on, but rather than do that I want to share with you some of what I think are the greatest experiments and breakthroughs in the field of social psychology.

Some of them are at best unsettling, but each one gives us a peek into what it means to be a human and explains why we do the most bizarre things on occasions.

Just in case you’re wondering, many of these psychology experiments would contravene all sorts of laws and protocols governing psychological experiments these days, and rightly so.

But to ignore data because of the way it was collected makes no sense.

6 Amazing Psychology Experiments

1. The Stanford Prison Experiment

This notorious experiment has spawned books and movies such were the shocking conclusions.

In 1971, Psychologist Philip Zimbardo constructed a fake prison under (ironically) the Stanford psyche department and kitted it out with survey cameras so all the action could be filmed.

He recruited 24 undergraduates to either play the part of an inmate or that of prison guard. Whereas the prisoners were kept in their cells 24/7 the guards were rotated on 8 hour shifts.

The guards were instructed to be strict and not to tolerate any trouble makers or disobedience.

It didn’t take them long to follow their instructions when on day 2 the prisoners rebelled and blockaded their cells.

The two week experiment lasted a mere 6 days when the ‘prisoners’ were pulled out as the Zimbardo started to fear for not just their safety, but their lives.

6 days was all it took for the guards to resort to shocking tactics of sexual humiliation as well as psychological and physical abuse.

Some prisoners were already showing signs of learned helplessness and depression.

The Take Away

As human beings we all have the capacity to act in appalling ways under extreme circumstances.

These students weren’t unusual and if you’d been one of them you would have almost certainly acted in a similar manner – even though you probably think you wouldn’t.

2. Stanley Milgram’s Shocking Experiment

This is possible the most famous psychological experiment of all time and almost as concerning as the Stanford experiment.

Milgram hypothesized that the followers and enablers of Adolf Eichmann one of the most instrumental Nazis when it came to organizing the Holocaust, may be no more than normal people submitting to authority.

Milgram told his pairs of subjects that he was conducting an experiment on memory and then assigned one of the pair as the teacher and one the pupil or learner.

Unbeknown to the person who was assigned to be the teacher in each experiment (it was done through a rigged ballot), the other person was really an actor aware of the real purpose of the experiment.

The teacher and student were split into separate rooms and the teacher was then instructed to apply an electric shock to the other person every time they got a question wrong.

The severity of the ‘shocks’ were increased incrementally and the participants could even hear the other person screaming in pain.

Yet by and large they kept applying the shocks to such a level that there would have been a lot of explaining to do with dead bodies and severely damaged people if they had been real.

Some resisted at first and said they didn’t like administering the pain, but continued to do so when told by the man in a white coat it was all part of the experiment.

The Take Away

Not only are we all capable of inflicting pain upon others, we are also massively influenced by authority figures and under such ‘perfect storm’ situations all rational behavior evaporates.

So next time you judge somebody as morally reprehensible just remember the phrase:

“There but for the grace of God go I”

In the meantime I’m off to buy a white coat.

The Good Samaritan Experiment

Over 40 Princeton students were recruited to supposedly deliver a talk on another part of campus in the early 1970’s.

When getting their instructions they were then primed with one of three statements designed to elicit mild, moderate and severe urgency in terms of how quickly they needed to get to the venue and start their talk.

On their route the experimenters had positioned a man doubled up in pain, coughing uncontrollably and obviously in a lot of distress and in need of help.

They wanted to see what effect the urgency of the instructions had on the students likelihood of stopping to help.

Less than 50% of students stopped at all and a mere 10% of those who were told their talk had to start quickly and people were waiting for them.

Some literally even stepped over the man and didn’t stop.

The irony was that these were Seminary students and half were told they were giving talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Take Away

Many of us will help others, but the likelihood of us doing so is dependent on so many factors, not least of which is, are we in a hurry or not?

4. The One Marshmallow Or Two Experiment?

Another famous Stanford experiment from the 1960’s led by Walter Mischel involved testing the ability of children to resist short-term pleasure for longer-term gain.

4-year-old children were placed in a room one at a time with a bowl of marshmallows and not a fat lot else to focus their attention on.

They were then told that they could either eat one marshmallow now, or they could have two when the experimenter returned in 15 minutes time.

Most children opted for the latter option, but most caved in quicker than Lindsay Lohan at a Motley Crue party.

You may think that wasn’t very surprising, after all most kids like shoveling sweet shit into their mouths and self control isn’t usually a word adopted to describe 4-year-olds.

However, the real genius of the experiment was the follow up and tracking of the participants.

The kids who resisted were far less likely to have issues with drink and/or drugs later on in life and overall were far more successful than the kids who gave into temptation.

The Take Away

Maybe teaching kids self control should be higher up our collective agendas?

5. The Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes Experiment

The day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, teacher Jane Elliott decided that she wanted to help her third-grade students understand the consequences of being a minority in a Society rife with racism, fear and hatred.

With their permission (although being given permission by an 8 year-old for such an experiment is dubious at best) she split the group into those with blue eyes and those with not.

She declared that blue-eyed people were superior and treated that group accordingly by being more relaxed about discipline with them, giving them longer recess times and paying them more attention.

The other children were ordered to sit at the back of the class and were treated harshly and with contempt.

The most staggering part of this ad lib experiment maybe the fact that by the end of just the first day massive changes had already taken place.

The blue-eyed children who had been previously struggling started to perform better and similarly the smarter brown-eyed kids were all of a sudden struggling.

Not only that, but the blue-eyed kids soon started to taunt the others and gloat.

Elliott was wise enough to flip the exercise after the first day to give both sides the opportunity to understand what it feels like to be treated in such a manner.

An important finding in an experiment that has been replicated many times with the same results, was that the dark-eyed kids didn’t taunt their fellow students to the extent that they had been taunted.

The Take Away

It seems that for the most part we find it difficult (although of course by no means impossible) to truly empathize with minorities.

Unless that is, we too have been treated poorly because we belonged to a minority group.

6. The Bystander Effect Experiment

In 1964 Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York in full view of an undetermined number of people, but in all probability well over 20, but probably less than the 38 reported at the time.

Her assailant, Winston Moseley didn’t even kill her quickly.

After stabbing her once and somebody shouting at him to ‘leave her alone‘ he ran back to his car, only to return shortly after to stab her multiple times as she lay on the ground bleeding.

The media were up in arms at how many people had failed to do anything and it sparked a storm that has never quite abated.

The Bystander Effect is the belief that the more people who witness a scene such as the one above, the less any one individual is likely to do about it.

Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane decided to test this theory 4 years after the event.

This time however the used the ruse of somebody having a life-threatening seizure and as per the Milgram experiment the study group could not see the person in trouble only hear them.

The results were startling similar to what happened with Kitty Genovese.

The more people who were aware of the person needing help, the less likely anybody was to offer it.

The Take Away

On the last Coach The Life Coach course I was looking for volunteers for a couple of processes I wanted to teach.

I sent out a blanket e-mail asking people to step forward.

Nobody did.

What I should have done was e-mail people individually and ask them if they’d care to help out.

So if you ever find yourself in medical difficulty surrounded by strangers, don’t cry for help in general. Point at one person and say, “You there, I think I’m about to shuffle off this mortal coil, could you possibly arrange for an ambulance my good fellow” Or something like that.

So what’s your take?

I’d love to hear on the comments.

Image Courtesy of Brandon Burke