Why exactly people act or react the way they do. Psychologists all over the world are still in the process to fully understand this phenomena. However, it is also true that the existing knowledge about the human behavior is a result of a century long study and experiments.
These experiments certainly contributed to psychological society in a grand way. From Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Experiment to Asch’s Conformity Experiment, together we will unravel some most influential psychological experiments that will help us understand the reasons behind our actions.
Below is a list of the 13 most influential psychological experiments that every human being should know. It is the first article of two articles covering 26 most influential Psychological Experiments. The second one will be published shortly.
13. Violinist at the Metro
In 2007, the Washington post conducted an interesting study to learn how closely people observe their surroundings and act accordingly. The staff organized a violin play at the DC Metro station to successfully conduct this test.
During the test, commuters scuttled down without actually realizing the fact that the musician playing at the metro entrance was Grammy-winning performer, Joshua Bell, who, a couple of days before this experiment at the station, sold out at a house-full theater in Boston.
Even though, he probably played one of the most complicated pieces ever written with a 3.5 million dollar violin, only 6 people stopped and listened. Around 20 of them gave him money, but continued to walk at normal pace. At the end of the day, he collected only $32 against $100 per ticket at the Boston event.
12. Piano Stairs
Do you take the stairs, or escalator when you visit a mall or a subway? Well, on an average people tend to take escalators more often than stairs, right. Based on this, Volkswagen initiated an experiment called “The Fun Theory” to prove that people’s behavior can be changed, in this case for the better by making dull activities more of a fun.
The setup was organized at a subway in Stockholm, Sweden. Where, normal stairs were changed with musical piano steps of the subway station to see if more people would be willing take the stairs instead of the escalator. The following day, nearly 66 percent of total commuters took the stairs than usual, proving that fun is a good way to get people to change their habits.
11. Visual Cliff Experiment
Are you scared of heights? What do you think this fear came from, is it something that we are born with or do we gain it gradually as we grew up? To find out the answer, psychologists Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk performed a study to learn the depth perception in infants, which became popular as the visual cliff experiment.
For the study, they included a total of 36 infants between the ages of six month and 1 year. The test setup was comprised of a visual cliff which was created using a large glass table, raised about a foot off the floor. To create the perfect cliff environment, they marked half of the table with checkered pattern representing the ‘shallow side.’
Likewise, in order to create ‘deep side,’ a checkered pattern was created on one side from top to down as a visual cliff. Even though the glass table extends further away, the placement of the pattern on the floor creates the illusion of a drop-off. Infants were than placed one by one on that table.
At the end of the experiment, Gibson and Richard found that only 27 infants crossed into the shallow side after their mothers called them. Out of those 27 infants, only three crawled off to the visual cliff toward their mother when called from the other side. All the remaining infants who didn’t cross either went back to the shallow side or cried.
10. Selective Attention Test
The famous selective attention test was carried out by D. Simons and C. Chabris to understand the general consciousness of the human brain. The test was comprised of two teams, one dressed in white and another in black. Subjects were asked to observe a video in which both teams exchanged a ball within their teammates. Based on the observations, participants had to count the total number of passes occurred between the players of the white team.
While all this was going on, a man in a gorilla setup quietly stepped onto the stage and stood in the center for a few minutes before just going offstage. Simons and Chabris found out that almost all of the test subjects failed to recognize the gorilla. The finding proved, that when people are asked to concentrate on one particular task, their strong focus on that ‘thing’ can force them to miss other significant details.
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9. The Marshmallow Test
Well, who knew that psychological tests can be tasty too?. In 1972, Walter Mischel of Stanford University started the Marshmallow Experiment to study whether deferred gratification can be a leading factor in future success. To perform this test, children ages four to six were taken into an empty room with just one table. On top of that table, a single marshmallow was placed.
To conduct the test, children were told that they would receive a second marshmallow if the first one was still on the table after 15 minutes before experimenters left the room. They observed closely on how long each child resisted having the marshmallow. They found out that among those 600 children, only few ate the marshmallow immediately and nearly one-third delayed the pleasure for long enough to receive the second marshmallow.
After, several related studies, Mischel found that those who deferred gratification were significantly more capable and qualified, they also received higher and better SAT scores than their peers, proving that this trait is more likely to remain with a person for life. Moreover, even though the study seems simplistic, the findings mark some of the foundational differences in an individual that can predict success.
8. Milgram Experiment
Authority and orders constitute a very important part of our life. From early in our lives, we are trained to obey orders from higher authorities even though it goes against their morals and common sense. To put a stamp on this theory, psychologist Stanley Milgram designed a test to measure people’s desire to obey the authority, when they were specifically instructed to perform several acts that may conflict with their morals.
Subjects were informed that they were actually taking part in a test, where they have to observe another person taking a memory test and act as an administrator. They were strictly advised to give them an electric shock (which was fake) every time they got a wrong answer to a question.
Much to the experimenter’s motive, every time the person (actor) gave an incorrect answer, the participants tend to increase the severity of shocks, even though the individual taking the test appeared to be in tremendous pain. Despite these complaints, almost all participants carried on pulling the switch and increasing the severity of shocks after each wrong answer. This experiment manifested, that human brains are more likely to obey higher authority even if it’s against their sanity.
7. Surrogate Mother / Harlow’s Monkey’s
When a child is born, mother’s affection is the first thing that he/she feels. According to doctors, this affection is vital for a child’s growth. Well, you can thank Mr. Harlow for the love you get as a child. In a controversial experiment during the early 1960s, psychologist Harry Harlow studied the significance of a mother’s affection for healthy mental and overall development of a child.
To execute the experiment, he separated newborn monkeys from their biological mothers just hours after their birth and put them in an observational quarter with two “surrogate mothers.” The first one was actually made of wrapped wire with an attached bottle (for food), the other one was made of soft cloth which lacked food.
Interestingly, the babies spent a significant amount of time with mother having just cloth rather than the wire mother with food. This experiment proved that not food but affection and love plays a much greater role in overall development of a child.
6. The Good Samaritan Experiment
Do you help strangers in need? Or how many people do you think will help the strangers? And if they do, what are the reasons? To find the answer to this question, Daniel Batson and John Darley devised an experiment called “The Good Samaritan Experiment” to explore the potential causes of the unselfish behavior. To start out with, researchers tested three hypothesis;
A. Religion is not a major factor determining who will help and who will not.
B. People in hurry are not likely to show generous behavior.
C. People who turned religious just for personal gains would be less helpful than people aiming for spiritual gains in their life.
The setup was quite interesting, beforehand subjects were given religious teaching before asking them to gather in an another building. On their way to the other building, there was a person lying injured who appeared to be in grievous pain and in dire need of help. Now, to test the second assumption, some subjects were advised not to hurry while others were told the exact opposite.
Researchers find out that when in no hurry, nearly 2/3 of subjects stopped and offer to help. On the other hand, the ratio dropped when the subjects were in a rush. Furthermore, subjects who were about to convey a speech about helping others are more likely to help against those delivering other speeches, demonstrating that thoughts are an important factor in determining helping behavior in other persons.
5. The Halo Effect Experiment
The Halo Effect is one the oldest and well known phenomena which confirms that most people generally presume that their opposites, male or female, who are attractive (physically) are mostly intelligent, kind and friendly, and a person with better judgment. To prove their theory, Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson devised a test that will show how Halo Effect can influence an individual’s personal judgment.
They conducted the test on two groups of college students. The first group was asked to assess a teacher according to a videotaped interview. In that taped interview, the instructor introduced himself as an intelligent, enthusiastic and respectful of his students. In the second video, which was given to the second group, he made himself a completely different person, that is, unlikable and distrustful with a rigid teaching style.
The students were called upon to rate the instructor based on his appearance and mannerisms. The important part here is that his gesture and accent were kept the same in both the videos. The results were actually baffling to the respondents. Upon asking, they had no idea why they gave the first lecturer such higher ratings. They also added that, they liked the lecturer from what he said and their evaluation of individual was not affected by his characteristics at all.
4. The Monster Study
American psychologist and a strong proponent of General Semantics, Wendell Johnson came into the spotlight after exerting unethical methods in his experiment. He started his famous study on the effects of speech therapy based on children in 1939. To start with, he selected 20 odd children, which he divided into two groups. The first group comprised of children suffering from stutters and the second one without.
The subjects with stutters were given positive speech therapy, and received praise for their speaking fluency with continuous motivation. On the other hand, children on the second group were heavily discouraged and disparaged for every grammatical mistake they made. The outcome of the experiment was gruesome, not only the children who experienced negative speech suffered a long term psychological effects, they also suffered difficulties in speech for the rest of their lives.
3. Ross’ False Consensus Effect Study
The false-consensus effect is a cognitive bias by which people tend to overestimate the extent to which their beliefs, opinions, preferences and values are normal and typical of those of others. Simply put, it’s a false feeling where people judge that others think the same way they do. Even though, the concept of False Consensus is not new and can be traced back in the mid-1900s, from the works of Leon Festinger and Sigmund Freud, it was only in 1977, when the first full detailed study was done on the subject.
The experiment focuses on how people can erroneously conclude that others think the same way they do, to form a “false consensus” about preferences the beliefs of others. During the initial stage of the study, each participant was provided with a situation in which a conflict occurred and were only provided with two options to respond to the situation. They were asked three things:
A. Guess which of the two option other people would choose,
B. Say which option they themselves would choose
C. Describe the attributes of the person who would likely choose each of the two options
The study showed that most of the subjects maintain the view that other people would do the same as them, regardless of the responses they personally choose. This phenomenon is referred to as the false consensus effect. The second observation showed that when participants were asked to describe the attributes of the other people who will likely make the choice, opposite of their own, they made bold, negative predictions about the personalities of those who did not share their choice.
2. The Schacter and Singer Experiment on Emotion
A group of nearly 180 male participants divided into two groups, were injected with epinephrine, a neurotransmitter or hormone that induces arousal including increased trembling, heartbeat including rapid breathing. The research participants were told that they were being injected with a new medication to test their eyesight. The first group of participants was informed about the possible side effects of the injection, while the second group were not.
The participants were then sent into a room one by one, along with someone they thought was a fellow participant. But he was actually a part of the experiment, a confederate. Now every time one participant walks into the door, the confederate starts acting either euphoric or angry. As an effect, participants who had not been informed earlier about the effects of the injection were found more likely to feel either happier or angrier than those who had been informed.
The main motive behind this experiment was to understand the ways in which cognition or thoughts influence human emotion. Their study illustrates the importance of how people interpret their physiological states, which form an important component of your emotions. Furthermore, even though it is correct that this theory of emotional arousal dominated the field for more than two decades, it has been criticized in recent years due to its non-universality.
1. Stanford Prison Study
Perhaps one of the most famous and controversial experiments in psychology, the Stanford Prison Experiment was performed by professor Philip Zimbardo to study the assumption of roles in a forced situation. The experiment was specially designed to study the behavior of a “normal” individuals assigned to a role of either a prisoner or a guard.
Participants, who are college students were assigned roles of “guard” or “inmate”. To make it cogent, a great bit importance was given to the local environment of the psychology building where it was carried, to closely resemble with an actual prison. The students turned prison guards were told to run a prison for two weeks. They were also told not to physically harm any of the inmates during the entire experiment.
Unfortunately, the experimenters were forced to cut short the experiment after a few days, due to a hostile environment in the prison. The prison guards tend to become verbally abusive towards the inmates and many of the prisoners became submissive to the authority. The experiment was based on unethical principles, but still many psychologists believe that the results showed how a person will comply to certain roles provided in the appropriate conditions.