Five famous psychological experiments

February 28, 2010

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.

My media week 28/02/10

February 28, 2010

In The New Yorker Louis Menand asks if psychiatry can be a science: Head Case

In this week’s In Our Time Melvyn Bragg and his guests explored the ideas of John Calvin and their impact on the world.

The Onion has a spoof Lars Von Trier video commissioned by the Danish Tourist Board.

My favourite links #37

February 28, 2010

While researching my piece on self-help a couple of weeks ago I came across this excellent sceptical website, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. They do a weekly podcast about sceptical issues. They look at paranormal, fringe science, and controversial claims from a scientific point of view. I particularly enjoy their archive, which has more than 240 past podcasts. They have interviews with leading Sceptics such as:

James Randi. He has a prize of one million dollars for anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal effect under proper scientific controls; nobody has claimed the prize yet.

Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell. He has investigated such phenomena as the Turin Shroud.

Michael Shermer. He is one of my favourite sceptical authors.

I hope you enjoy it.

Race: an explosive four-letter word

February 21, 2010

Classifying the world’s peoples into distinct groups – red, black, white or yellow– seems to be part of the human psyche. Race is one of the three characteristics most often used in brief descriptions of individuals (the other two being age and sex). We humans do seem to specialise in noticing differences. This has been going on for a long time. It is complicated because this issue is also linked to culture, language, religion etc. The Ancient Greeks did not have a specific word for race but Hippocrates did argue that the Greeks owed their bravery and warlike nature to their barren soil. The Asians, on the other hand were weak and peaceful because they lived in luscious vegetation. The philosopher Aristotle believed that Asians were naturally inclined to be slaves. Jumping forward some 2000 years we see an interesting fusion of popular belief about group differences and the emerging scientific explanations. This was not sciences finest hour. Linnaeus is famous for classifying the animal kingdom but he also did it with humans He considered human races to be “varieties”, which he named using his characteristic binomial nomenclature: Homo Europaeus, Homo Asiaticus, Homo Afer and Homo Americanus. This was hierarchical with Europeans, naturally, at the top of the chain. Along with Darwin’s theory of evolution we got Social Darwinism perhaps it should really be called social Spencerism. It was Herbert Spencer who really pushed these ideas. They would prove to have tragic consequences and would culminate in such horrors as the eugenics movement, colonialism and the Nazi Holocaust. Many of us may associate eugenics with the extreme right but for much of the twentieth century it was favoured by many progressives, liberals and socialists. The list of proponents included HG Wells George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and the Marxist biologist J.B.S. Haldane.

In reality, there is not now nor has there ever been a pure human race. Basically we haven’t been around long enough to evolve into separate subspecies or races. This is because of gene flow, interbreeding and migration There are variations between different ethnic groups but there are more differences within ethnic groups. The problem is that the differences between ethnic groups are skin deep but highly visible. Knowing that someone has a particular skin colour dies not really tell you much about them. In the famous work by Luca Cavalli-Sforza argues in The History and Geography of Human Genes that “the major stereotypes, all based on skin colour, hair colour and form, and facial traits, reflect superficial differences that are not confirmed by deeper analysis with more reliable genetic traits and whose origin dates from recent evolution mostly under the effect of climate and perhaps sexual selection.” If you look at people from sub-Saharan Africa and Australian Aborigines, you will see that they have similar skin pigmentation. However genetically they are very different with the aboriginals being more similar to Asians, which of course is perfectly logical due to their geographical proximity.

Skin deep may be superficial but it is, alas, very noticeable; an idea that has no biological basis can still of course be highly influential. Race may be a socially constructed identity but racism is very real. We are a difference-seeking species and we can find any excuse to discriminate and not just about race. One of the most fascinating experiments in this area was carried out in 1968 by a teacher, Jane Elliot. She told her class that blue-eyed children were more intelligent and generally to those with brown eyes. The latter wee told that they would have to sit at the back of the class and would have to wear special collars so they could be easily identified.  To add insult to injury they were not to drink directly from the water fountain, but had to use paper cups. The effects were immediate –those who were discriminated against started losing their self-confidence; their schoolwork began to suffer. Then the following day she said that there had been a mistake and it was really the blue-eyed children who were inferior. The results were immediately reversed, although there was a reduction in intensity. At 2:30 on the second day, Elliott told the blue-eyed children to take off their collars and the children cried and hugged each other. You could say that the experiment was not very ethical but I think it was a wonderful practical class in the insidious nature of discrimination.

It does not appear that race discrimination is going to fade away any time soon. Science is now playing a more positive and has helped to undermine a number of racial myths. But discrimination is still deeply embedded in many minds. In a world where conflict is endemic it is all too easy to blame the other. We have made a lot of progress but there is still a long way to go.

Racism quotes

February 21, 2010

My impression as to your cheap labour was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work. No doubt they are lowly paid, but the return is equally so; to see your men at work made me feel that you are a very satisfied easy-going race who reckon time is no object. When I spoke to some managers they informed me that it was impossible to change the habits of national heritage. From a report by an Australian management consultant who visited Japan in 1915

Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.  Rosa Parks

Racism is taught in our society, it is not automatic. It is learned behaviour toward persons with dissimilar physical characteristics. Alex Haley

There’s a lot more hypocrisy than before. Racism has gone back underground. Richard Prior

We don’t know anything about racism. We’ve never experienced it. If words can make a difference in your life for seven minutes, how would it affect you if you heard this every day of your life?  Jane Elliott

A fully functional multiracial society cannot be achieved without a sense of history and open, honest dialogue. Cornel West

Let’s be very honest about what this is about. It’s not about bashing Democrats, it’s not about taxes, they have no idea what the Boston tea party was about, they don’t know their history at all. This is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up. Actress Janeane Garofalo attacking the Tea Party movement

If I can send the flower of the German nation into the hell of war without the smallest pity for the shedding of precious German blood, then surely I have the right to remove millions of an inferior race that breeds like vermin.  Adolf Hitler

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Martin Luther King, in a speech delivered on 3 April 1968 in a church in Memphis the day before his assassination.

My media week 21/02/10

February 21, 2010

This week The Guardian celebrated Ten years of John Crace’s Digested Read. If you are not familiar with it, Crace does pastiches of popular writers from Dan Brown to Martin Amis. There is an archive of the 500+ pieces at the bottom of the page. Crace Can be very catty in the piece he mentions that Jilly Cooper accused him of giving away the plot. His reply – “I hadn’t been aware there was one; the ­ending was blindingly obvious from about page 20”

Renowned evolutionary anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar was at the RSA to talk about How Many Friends Does One Person Need? He explains how the very distant past underpins all of our current behaviours, and how we can best utilise that knowledge.

In Thinking Allowed Laurie Taylor looks at a history which traces piracy back to the advent of print culture in the 15th century. Adrian Johns talks about his new book ‘Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenburg to Gates’. He tells Laurie Taylor how piracy spread the ideals of the Enlightenment and has been the engine of innovation as often as its enemy. Also, Helena Webb discusses her study on the morality of obesity.

And finally The Onion has a piece about the long-awaited return of Tiger Woods: Tiger Woods Announces Return To Sex

A sceptic’s guide to self-help

February 14, 2010

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, “Where’s the self-help section?” She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose. George Carlin

There are no greater liars in the world than quacks – except for their patients. Benjamin  Franklin

The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one. Christopher Buckley, an American political satirist and the author of novels including God Is My Broker

Self-help is an enterprise wherein people holding the thinnest of credentials diagnose in basically normal people symptoms of inflated or invented maladies, so that they may then implement remedies that have never been shown to work. Steve Salerno, a journalist who uses the acronym SHAM: the Self-Help and Actualization Movement

 If you need to pay for someone’s help, why is it called “self-help”? Sceptic, Michael Shermer

The other day I heard one of those excellent RSA podcasts. This particular one featured Barbara Ehrenreich, who has recently written a book attacking positive thinking and the world of self-help books life coaches and motivational speakers.  Ehrenreich came into contact with all this after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And she was horrified by what she saw. The pink ribbon culture repelled her but there was more to it than that. What she didn’t like was the perception of cancer. On the one hand it was being described as a positive life experience. In her article Welcome to Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch  Ehrenreich quotes Cindy Cherry, analysing her experience of cancer:

If I had to do it over, would I want breast cancer? Absolutely, I’m not the same person I was, and I’m glad I’m not. Money doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve met the most phenomenal people in my life through this. Your friends and family are what matter now.

On the other hand it encourages victim blaming by suggesting that people’s misfortune is the result of a failure to think positively. Not only do people have cancer, but it is somehow their fault if they don’t have right attitude.

In a previous post, Welcome to the Psychosphere I analysed the psychologisation of society but now I want to look at the self-help movement. In her book Ehrenreich traces the movement back to the 19th century and sees it as a positive thing a counterweight to all that Calvinist pessimism. In fact these ideas go back to the ancient Greeks. But it was Samuel Smiles who popularised the concept and in 1859 he wrote the first self-consciously personal-development self-help book entitled funnily enough Self-Help. Then we got all that New Age stuff from the hippies at the time of the Vietnam war. It would be nice to think that this kind of nonsense would tend to fade away in our scientific age but there seems to be little evidence of this. We seem to have a fixed quota of nonsense – when one superstitious belief fades away, another one comes in to take its place.

Let me be clear I am not against people being ambitious. What does irk me is the unscientific nature of this movement, and the absolute contempt they have for scientific proof. An argument you often hear is that if they help one person, then they are doing some good. The problem with that assertion is that helping some people is not enough.. Of course they have helped some people. The law of large numbers means that if enough people are trying enough things then some are bound to appear to work. Many people’s lives improve naturally.

They also have the perfect excuse if the treatment doesn’t work. The person lacks the right attitude. Alcoholics Anonymous say that they 75% of those who embrace change are cured of their alcoholism. To be fair to AA,  they are not a money-making organisation, which is not true of many others in this field.

Another fallacy comes from books such as The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. These people were successful but what we don’t see is those people who had exactly the same traits but ended up failing.

I am not against positive thinking. I would admit I can be a bit of a pessimist. You can see that in my political philosophy, which states that utopia is not an option. I do admire that American entrepreneurial spirit. People who have nothing and by coming up with some idea are able to make their fortune. Maybe sometimes you need to be a bit delusional. If you were perfectly rational, you just wouldn’t take all those risks. When people offer practical advice, I’m all in favour. But the power of the mind is not unlimited. The only recipe for success is huge doses of opportunism, hard work and luck. Most things fail. This 12-billion-dollar industry is taking too many people for a ride. But it is up to us to see through these charlatans.