What happened to the good old days, when a scientist could just rustle together some test subjects and let loose in the lab? You know, without having to worry about petty humane things…like ethics!
1. Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Studies
In this Yale University study, participants were told they were part of an experiment on the effects of punishment [wiki] on learning. They were instructed to teach another participant (the “learner”) a list of words, and whenever the learner made a mistake, deliver an electric shock via a generator with levers labeled in 15-volt increments (up to 450 volts--where the label read “Danger: Severe Shock” and “XXX”).
The learner (who, unknown to the participant, was not actually receiving shocks) became increasingly vocal, at one point even screaming, “I can’t stand the pain! Get me out of here!” Because the experimenter urged the participants to continue, nearly 65% of them continued to obey the experimenter to deliver the maximum 450 volts. The participants weren’t sadistic, Milgram [wiki] argued, just socialized to obey authority figures.
2. Stanford Prison Experiments
In the summer of 1971 Philip Zimbardo [wiki] put Stanford Students in jail [wiki]. Students, who volunteered and were paid, were randomly assigned to be either guard or prisoner. The prisoners were surprised at their homes, handcuffed, and taken by police cruiser to makeshift jail in the basement of the psychology department. There they were stripped of their personal belongings and given smocks, nylon caps, and identification numbers. The uniformed guards were simply told to enforce the rules.
In just a few short days, the guards began to devise sadistic and degrading rituals for the prisoners, many of whom became depressed, anxious, or apathetic. Although they knew that this was just an experiment, all of the guards and prisoners adopted their rules, completely overriding their own individuality. The outcome was so dramatic, the experiment was stopped after only six days.
3. Little Albert
John Watson [wiki] and Rosalie Rayner conducted one of the most famous and controversial studies in psychology using an 11-month-old boy who came to be known as Little Albert [wiki]. With Little Albert, Watson demonstrated that many fears are conditioned through an association with other fearful situations.
Before the experiment, Little Albert was a normal baby who was afraid of loud noises but not much else. Little Albert loved playing with small animals until Watson taught him to become afraid of a white rat by repeatedly banging a steel rod with a hammer whenever Albert was given a white rat to play with. Little Albert’s fear generalized to other similar objects, such as Watson’s white hair and a Santa Claus mask. Watson clearly demonstrated that fears could be conditioned, but his methods have been roundly criticized, especially since conditioning was never reversed.
From mental_floss' book Condensed Knowledge: A deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again, published in Neatorama with permission.
The original authors are Shane Pitts, a cognitive psychologist at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, AL, and Royce Simpson, an associate professor of psychology at Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL.
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