Five famous psychological experiments

Last week in my article on race I referred to the famous Jane Elliot. “blue-eyed/brown-eyed” exercise. That gave me the idea to do a piece about some of the most famous psychological experiments in the last 100 years. Some of them may not have been very ethical but they make fascinating reading. I hope all the details are accurate because you often get contradictory information when you research them online. Anyway here is a list of five of my favourites:

Nuns behaving badly

In the 1960s in California William Coulson and a group of radical psychotherapists were able to convince a group of nuns to become guinea pigs in a bizarre psychological experiment. The Convent of the Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles, one of the largest seminaries in America, was the place chosen. Quite why the convent approved of this experiment is beyond me but I suppose they wanted to appear hip and trendy. The nuns were going to be put in an encounter group. This is defined as “a typically unstructured psychotherapy group in which the participants seek to increase their sensitivity, responsiveness, and emotional expressiveness, as by freely verbalizing and responding to emotions”. They most certainly did that.

The convent was transformed.  This quote from one of the nuns indicated that strange things were happening:

You are trying to assert yourself, trying to find out who you are, who you are becoming, at the same time you are trying to live a life of dedication of service and you are trying to make all of these things fit into who you are, and it’s such a turmoil at times that you just blow a gasket and do silly crazy things. Running around the orchard and stealing oranges and taking Cokes out of the refrigerator, crazy things.

The nuns voted to discard their habits but that was nothing compared to what was about to happen. These sessions unleashed forces previously that had previously lain dormant – sex. Nuns started seducing each other. It may sound like a Larry Flynt production but it really happened.

Within a year 300 nuns, more than half the convent, had petitioned the Vatican to be released from their vows and six months later the convent closed its doors. All that was left was a small group of radical lesbian nuns.

‘I am insane; but I am getting better.’

David Rosenhan created a dramatic experiment that gets at the very heart of how we conduct psychiatric diagnosis. There were two elements to Rosenhan’s study:

The first involved the use of eight normal people, including Rosenhan himself, none of whom had ever had any psychiatric problems. They briefly simulated auditory hallucinations so that they would be admitted to various psychiatric hospitals in the USA. In the psychiatric assessment they said they could hear voices saying single words such as “empty”, “hollow” “thud or “dull”. These were the only psychiatric symptoms which they exhibited. During their stay, hospital notes indicated that staff misinterpreted much of the pseudopatients’ behaviour in terms of mental illness. For example, the note-taking of one individual was listed as “writing behaviour” and considered pathological – the patient had a compulsion to write. The hospital staff was unable to detect a single pseudopatient; seven were diagnosed with schizophrenia and the other one with bipolar disorder. All were given powerful psychotropic drugs and there was nothing they could to convince the doctors that they were sane. The only way out for them to get out was to agree that they were mentally ill and then pretend that they were getting better.

Rosenhan’s experiment provoked outrage and he was challenged to repeat it. The second part involved asking staff at a psychiatric hospital to detect non-existent ‘fake’ patients. The staff detected large numbers of patients as impostors. There was just one problem Rosenhan hadn’t actually sent any fake patients. These patients were genuinely ill. The study, published under the title “On Being Sane in Insane Places”, is considered a landmark study of psychiatric diagnosis.

The experiment requires that you go on.

The Milgram Experiment was created to explain how people often obey orders even if those orders were palpably bad. This is what many concentration camp guards had claimed. For this experiment Milgram created a phoney but very impressive-looking electric ‘shock generator’ with 30 clearly marked switches representing 15-volt increments. The machine went from 15 to 450 volts. At the low end there was a label slight shock; at the end was DAMGER: SEVERE SHOCK and beyond that simply XXX He then recruited 40 male subjects, who believed they were going to participate in an experiment about the effects of punishment on learning. When they arrived they met the chief experimenter, who was dressed in a white coat to lend him an air of scientific authority. Milgram then manipulated a draw so that the candidates chosen would be the “teachers” administering the shock; the “learners”, who were Milgram’s accomplices, were actors. The “teachers” saw that the “learner” being strapped to a chair.    Then electrodes were attached. The “teacher” then had to sit down in another room in front of the shock generator, unable to see the “learner”. He had to teach word-pairs to the “learner”. If the “learner” made a mistake or didn’t answer, the “teacher” was instructed to give the “learner” a shock, upping the charge 15 volts higher for each error. Of course the “learner” didn’t actually receive the shocks, but pre-taped audio of screams was triggered when a shock-switch was pressed. If the “teacher” had second thoughts, they would be told in an increasingly authoritarian tone such things as:

Please go on.

The experiment requires that you go on.

You have no other choice, you must go on

Although most subjects did express reservations, all 40 of them obeyed up to 300 volts and 25 of the 40 subjects continued giving shocks until the maximum level was reached. The conclusion that Milgram arrived at was obedience to instructions can make us engage in morally questionable behaviour.

Six days in “prison”

Philip Zimbardo devised this experiment to examine that behaviour of individuals when placed into roles of authority and submission – prisoner or guard respectively. Twenty-five paid volunteers were selected for these roles in a simulated prison. The “prisoners” were put into a situation specifically designed to make them feel degraded, disoriented and dehumanised. To begin with they were arrested, charged and made to undergo all the usual procedures. They were then strip-searched, deloused, given a number and a uniform and had a manacle placed on one ankle. The “guards” too were given the real stuff including military-style uniforms, and reflective sunglasses to avoid eye contact and look cool They also had whistles handcuffs and keys. They were not given special training or very specific instructions on how to carry out their roles. However  both “prisoners” and “guards” quickly settled into their roles and things soon degenerated. By the second day of the experiment the “prisoners” had staged a rebellion, which was brutally repressed by the “guards”. The latter’s behaviour became increasingly paranoid and they sought to control every aspect of the “prisoners’” lives; these began to experience depression, mental problems and what is known in psychology as learned helplessness. After five days Zimbardo had to abandon the experiment, which had been scheduled for two weeks, because it was rapidly getting out of hand. The lesson of this experiment is how people can get drunk on power and abuse the authority they have been given,

Good Samaritans

Darley and Batson Batson did a study examining bystander intervention in theology students at Yale Divinity School. 40 students were asked to present a talk on either the Good Samaritan story or their future job prospects for seminary students. The students were told that due to space limitations they would have to give their talk in a nearby building. Then they gave each participant one of three time constraints:

1) Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving. The assistant should be waiting for you so you’d better hurry. It shouldn’t take but a minute.

2) The assistant is ready for your, so please go right over.

3) It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head on over. If you have to wait over there, it shouldn’t be long.

On their way to the new building they would see a man sitting slumped in doorway.  The “beggars” would moan and cough twice as the students walked by. Around 40% offered some help to the victim. What had more impact on the willingness to stop and help was the amount of time the students thought they had. The students who were giving the Good Samaritan did not seem to take its message to heart Thus these divinity students’ beliefs could be easily manipulated by instructions from an unknown person in authority. They faced a conflict between helping the victim and meeting the needs of the experimenter. Conflict rather than callousness can explain the failure to stop.

2 Responses to Five famous psychological experiments

  1. I haven’t heard about the nuns, gotta go find more about it, but I missed David Reimer from the list. What I really liked about Milgram’s Experiment that they did a follow-up (I think a few months, but not sure heard this story in my first year) asking the subjects how did they feel about the experiment, if they experienced guild or similar feelings, and almost none responded affirmative. They were shifting the blame to the instructor who pressured them to do it, so this theory was associated with the Nazi Germany and how things went down there.

  2. Ceedub says:

    I understand the need to be concise in shorter articles such as this one, but the author left out huge, important parts of many of these experiments. For example, in the Stanley Milgram experiment, the “learners” would scream louder and louder, and eventually slump over in their chairs as if they had died, and yet some participants continued to press the buttons. Some of them were pleading that they had heart conditions, etc. Also, the experiment was repeated without the white, official looking lab coats, and the results were slightly different; more people refused to obey the orders to continue.

    Another example is the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. The guards were not just “getting out of hand,” they were downright sadistic in their punishments. On the second day of the experiment, after the prisoners staged a strike, the guards used fire extinguishers to blast the prisoners away from the doors, then rushed in, stripped them naked, and sent the ringleaders into solitary confinement. They used torment and forced physical exercise. Bathroom usage became a right, and was often denied at night. Instead, prisoners had to do their thing into buckets in their cells, which the guards sometimes refused to throw out. The allowance of food became a tool for the guards. Prisoners were forced into humiliating and degrading circumstances, through nudity and forced acts. Guards would become more abusive during the night as well, when they thought the cameras were turned off.
    Within two days, one prisoner began to have an emotional breakdown. However, at this point the guards started taking their roles very seriously – they thought he was trying to get out of his time by acting crazy. The participant soon became convinced that there was no escape from the study and went into a rage, an action that was finally enough to prompt his release from the study. He was not the only one who was released from the study early, and many others who stayed suffered from uncontrollable crying and disorganized thoughts.
    Another fascinating result was what is called “Stockholm Syndrome,” when victims of kidnappers start to take on the identity of a prisoner, having given up the idea of escaping. There were offers made to the prisoners to go on early parole. When asked if they’d sacrifice their payment in the study to get out early, most said yes. However, all paroles were rejected. Even though they had no incentive to continue in the study, they went with it anyways – as though they were really stuck in prison.
    The main thing to take away from this study is that it’s undeniable that there’s something more to the human mind than we think if such normal, stable people can become so degraded or monstrous in only a week’s time. The prisoners, normal before the study, were quickly trapped in their own real prison. The guards were vigilant and kept the prisoners from escaping, despite their disturbed states. And thus a controlled scientific simulation quickly deteriorated into reality.

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