3 Psychology Experiments that Rocked My World

An #IBOT post because I Blog On Tuesdays

Have you ever wondered how we learn about the way people behave? How we discovered that we are less likely to help to someone in need if there are other people nearby? Or how reward and punishment helps us change our behaviour?

Psychology - the study of human behaviour - has always fascinated me;  so much so that I lobbied Melbourne University, my alma mater, to be allowed to study psychology as part of my Commerce Degree many many years ago. Apparently this was a combination that had not been seen before.  

Since then I've gone on to do several years of postgraduate study in psychology and I've read and worked and taught and read and studied and read.  

In all of those years and all of that learning there are three psychology experiments that still intrigue me. Some of them could not be repeated today because they're really not ethical. Our standards when it comes to how we treat people have changed a bit in the last century, which is a great thing for prospective psychology students (usually the subjects in psychology research), but a little disappointing for those of us fascinated by why we do the weird and wonderful things we do.  

You may know these studies already and be equally intrigued. You may not care at all. I however still recall the exact details of where I was at the time I first heard each of them.  Kind of a JFK assassination moment for psychology nerds. 

The Murder of Kitty Genovese and The Bystander Effect

It was 1964 and Kitty Genovese was 28 years old, living in New York City and walking home from her shift working in a bar at 3am when she was stabbed to death by a serial rapist and murderer. Newspapers reported in the following days that 38 people were witness to this brutal attack and murder but no-one intervened to help save Kitty.

Why not?

Until Kitty's murder no-one had systematically studied how people respond to help others in emergency situations.  This tragic event piqued the interest of two social psychologists who began a series of experiments in which an emergency situation was staged and the researchers measured how long it took for individuals to respond. They found that if people were alone, about 70 per cent would call out or go to the assistance of the person who appeared to need help. If they were other people in the room however only 40 per cent would take action to help out.     

How intriguing.  These experiments have been repeated again and again and the same result occurs. This has come to be known as the Bystander Effect and it happens all the time, most recently in online communities in which we can hide behind our anonymity.  

Little Albert, a gong and some furry animals, 1920

This is one of those studies that we couldn't replicate today because intentionally causing babies distress is considered cruel.  

In this experiment John B. Watson, a very famous behavioural psychologist tested his theory that we often learn to fear things by associating something not necessarily scary or unpleasant with something that is most definitely scary or unpleasant. Tequila is a good example.  Nothing wrong with Tequila but if you've had a bad experience with it in the past the mere thought of it might make you nauseous.  That's what psychologists call a conditioned response.

Little Albert was only nine months old (and no he wasn't given tequila). He was sat in a room and given some furry creatures like tame rats and rabbits to play with.  He wasn't scared of the animals and was quite intrigued and happy. Then the researchers belted a ruddy great gong behind him when the animals approached. This caused him to cry and become quite scared and upset.  They repeated this a few times until he eventually began to associate the animals with something scary and became upset at the mere sight of them, without any need for the great big gong.  Weeks later they showed Albert a range of small furry creatures like dogs, rats and rabbits and they all scared the living daylights out of him, no sound required.

This was a pivotal piece of research for psychologists and it spawned many years of study into how we learn and remember, our understanding of phobias, fears and other emotions, and several therapies such as exposure therapy. 

Like I said, you wouldn't be allowed to do this to a baby these days and I do often wonder what happened to Little Albert and whether his fear of small furry animals continued through his life.

Stanley Milgram, electric shock and the Nazi's, 1963

This might be the most sinister of all.

As German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann took the stand during his trial, psychologist Stanley Milgram was concocting an experiment to understand how we respond to authority figures and whether the behaviour of Holocaust criminals could be understood as 'just following orders?'

In this experiment Milgram got a volunteer to play a teacher and an actor to play 'the student'.  The 'teacher' was unaware that the 'student' was in fact an actor and was led to believe that he or she was another volunteer.  They were placed in separate rooms so that they could not see each other but could communicate through sound alone.  

The teacher was required to read the student a series of simple word pairing exercises.  If the student got one wrong, the teacher was asked to press a button that administered the student with an electric shock. (There was no electric shock. It was all pretend but the volunteer didn't know that).  The next time the student got a question wrong the voltage of the shock went up.

Each time the shock was administered the researchers played pre-recorded audio of what sounded like someone receiving a very nasty electric shock to the volunteer.  The screams of agony became worse each time and eventually the 'student' started banging on the wall adjoining the two rooms and complaining of a heart condition. Ultimately, if the volunteer kept administering the shocks, all sound from the adjoining room stopped. I told you it was sinister.

During the whole experiment the volunteer was assured by an 'experimenter' (another actor) in a white coat that the student would not suffer permanent damage as a result of the shocks.  If the volunteer was hesitant to continue he or she was asked to 'please continue' and then told that it was 'essential' that he/she continue and that he/she had no choice but to continue.  

The experiment would eventually end if the volunteer flatly refused to go on (which most didn't) after much prompting by the experimenter of if they 'administered' the maximum shock of 450 volts (described as 'severe') three times over. 

As you might imagine, the volunteers became increasingly stressed and agitated, with some quite beside themselves, believing that they were causing another person real pain, possible injury and even death. Even so, over 60 per cent of people went ahead to administer the final, massive 450 volt shock to the student.

These results horrified the people of America when they were published there in 1963.  Milgram made the observation that many of us might follow to the orders of an authority such as the Nazi command during the Holocaust, no matter how abhorrent we found them to be and no matter how much we disbelieved that we could participate in anything so heinous. You can imagine that this was not the kind of fact that people wanted to believe about themselves. It still isn't.  


Phew, that was a bit intense, wasn't it? 

To wash away the angst that Stanley Milgram has created for us, watch this fascinating and far more fun video that uses operant conditioning (another type of learning) to make us change our behaviour.

I hope my beloved psychology experiments haven't led you to conclude that I suffer from extreme sadistic tendencies, although having written them all out and re-read them several times I'm beginning to wonder a little about myself.... Perhaps next time I'll write up my Top 3 Warm and Fuzzy Psychology Experiments?

What fascinates you about human behaviour?