The Most Groundbreaking Psychology Experiments of All Time

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Psychology is considered by many to be a field still in its childhood, even infancy. Since the field was first started by Wilhelm Wundt in 1879. The field of psychology became a formal field of experimental study in 1879, when Wundt established the first laboratory dedicated solely to psychological research in Leipzig, Germany. Wundt was the first person to refer to himself as a psychologist. Since that time psychology has grown into a massive collection of theories, concept, hypotheses, methods of practice and study and a specialty area within the field of healthcare. In order to gain so much momentum a number of very pivotal studies were conducted to test these many theories. While some were conducted ethically, others brought about a great deal of criticism. These are the five most widely cited psychology experiments in the history of the field.

Pavlov’s Dog Experiment

During the 1890’s Ivan Pavlov conducted a number of groundbreaking experiments at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. Pavlov’s experiment with dogs turned out to be one of the most pivotal experiments in all of psychology. His findings on conditioning created a new branch of psychological study in the area of conditioning. Pavlov began with the idea that there are some things that a dog does not need to learn, such as the reflex to salivate when they see food. This is knows as an unconditioned response. He then paired this unconditioned response by presenting a dog with a bowl of food with the ringing of a bell. Whenever he gave food to his dogs, he also rang a bell. After a number of repeats of this procedure, he tried the bell on its own. What he found was that the bell on its own now caused an increase in salivation. The dog had learned to associate the bell and the food and this learning created a new behavior, the dog salivated when he heard the bell. Because this response was learned (or conditioned), it is called a conditioned response.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971 Philip Zimbardo conducted one of the most highly controversial experiments at Stanford University. Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo set out to investigate the supposition of roles in a controlled environment. The Stanford Prison Experiment was designed to study behavior of “normal” individuals when assigned a role of prisoner or guard. College students were assigned roles of “guard” or “inmate” and Zimbardo played the role of the warden. The basement of the Stanford psychology building became the prison. The prison guards were told to run a prison for two weeks and were told not to physically harm any of the inmates. After just a few short days, the prison guards became verbally abusive to the inmates and the many of the prisoners became submissive to those in authority roles. The experiment was cancelled early because some of the participants showed signs of distress. Although the experiment was conducted very unethically, many psychologists believe that the findings showed how much human behavior is related to the situation they are in and that people will conform to certain roles if the conditions are right.

The Stanley Milgram Study

In 1961, Stanley Milgram was a psychologist at Stanford University. He was looking to study the willingness of individuals to obey authority figures when instructed to perform acts that conflict with moral beliefs. Participants were told they were participating in a study on memory. They were asked to watch another person (who was an actor) complete a memory test and were instructed to press a button that gave an electric shock each time the person got a wrong answer (the actor did not actually receive the shocks but pretended as if they did). Participants were told to play the role of “teacher” and administer electric shocks to “the learner,” who was supposedly in a different room, every time they answered a question incorrectly. Despite the apparent pain of the other participant (actor) many participants increased the voltage until some administered what would be lethal electric shocks. This experiment showed that humans are conditioned to obey authority and will usually do so even if it goes against their natural morals or common sense.

Bobo Doll Experiment

Alburt Bandura conducted his groundbreaking research in the early 1960s. In this study he separated participants into three groups: one was exposed to adults showing aggressive behavior towards a Bobo doll, another was exposed to a passive adult playing with the Bobo doll, and the third formed a control group. Children watched their assigned video and then were sent to a room with the same doll they had seen in the video (with the exception of those in the control group). What the researcher found was that children exposed to the aggressive model were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior towards the doll themselves, while the other groups showed little imitative aggressive behavior. For those children exposed to the aggressive model, the number of derivative physical aggressions shown by the boys was 38.2 and 12.7 for the girls.

The Little Alburt Experiment

John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner conducted their study in 1920 at Johns Hopkins University. Their hypothesis was that through a series of pairings, they could condition a nine-month-old child to develop an irrational fear. The experiment began by placing a white rat in front of the infant, who initially had no fear of the animal. Watson then produced a loud sound by striking a steel bar with a hammer every time little Albert was presented with the rat. After several pairings (the noise and the presentation of the white rat), the boy began to cry and exhibit signs of fear every time the rat appeared in the room. This study proved that classical conditioning works on humans. One of the most important implications this finding has is that adult fears are often connected to early childhood experiences.

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