Behavioral psychology reveals some really disturbing truths about the human nature. These experiments show that we don’t really have free will.

We all like to think of ourselves as going through life, making important decisions without influence from external forces. But there are some behavioral psychology experiments that suggest we can be swayed into certain thought processes and all without us even knowing it.

So are we mindless automatons, waiting to be guided by the slightest whim or will of a master manipulator, or can we make our own decisions based on our own merit and judgment?

Here are four behavioral psychology experiments that suggest our will can be bent or shaped by our environment, people around us or what is presented to us.

Monster Study

Can you make stuttering worse by simply labeling someone as a stutterer?

Speech pathologist Dr. Wendell Johnson was interested in why certain children stuttered. The prevailing theory was that stuttering was either genetic or organic. You were either born with a stutter or you weren’t.

Dr. Johnson did not believe this and thought that stuttering was all in the mind and that you could actually make it worse by labeling children as stutterers.

In his experiment, known as the Monster Study, he recruited 22 young orphans who were then divided into two groups. One group were labeled ‘normal speakers’ and the other ‘stutterers’. In the stutterer’s group, just half of the orphans stuttered.

The normal group were encouraged and given positive treatment, but the stutterers were made to feel self-conscious when they spoke, they were ridiculed and told off if they stuttered.

In the stuttering group, five out of the six ‘normal’ children developed a stutter, and three out of the five stutters became worse. In the normal group, only one had more speech problems after the study. The researchers realized what power they had over the orphans and tried to undo the damage. But the effects of the experiment lasted and the orphans who were labeled as stutterers never got rid of their speech impediment.

The Bystander Effect

Would you stand by and watch whilst someone is being murdered?

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment building whilst bystanders stood by and watched. No one stepped in to stop the attack or called the police for help.

Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley believed this due to the bystander effect, where responsibility is diffused according to the amount of individuals witnessing the event.

Where there are many onlookers the group looks to each other to determine how to act, in the case of Genovese, each person witnessing the attack deduced from their neighbour’s inaction that their help was not needed. Where there are fewer witnesses, this is less likely to occur.

Lost in the Mall

Can memories be falsely implanted into children?

Do you remember your childhood? Would you remember if you got lost in a mall and was subsequently rescued? This would be a particularly vivid memory and not easy to implant. But Jim Coan, an undergraduate student of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, managed to do just that.

Coan used his sister and brother and wrote four short stories which were recollections of actual events in his sibling’s childhood. He then asked them to describe in detail each event, but unbeknown to the participants, one of the stories had been made up. It told the story of Coan’s brother getting lost in a shopping mall when he was around 5 and being rescued by an elderly person.

Coan’s brother not only remembered the false event but added several extra details to the story. When he was told that one of the stories was false, he not only couldn’t remember which one but was shocked to be told it was the mall story.

Loftus describes this as ‘existence proof’, where a false memory can be created when a suggested event (being lost in the mall) is inserted into actual memories (going to the mall).

Smoke in the room

What would you do if there was smoke coming into your room?

If you were sitting in a room and smoke started coming in through under the door – what would you do? You’d point at it, tell everyone to get out and perhaps call the fire brigade. Or would you? One such behavioral psychology experiment showed that it is the actions of others that dictates your own.

This experiment had participants filling out a questionnaire when smoke starts coming through from under the door. When the participant was on their own 75% of them reported the smoke almost immediately, with an average time of 2 minutes from first noticing the smoke.

However, when two participants were in the room, one being an actor involved in the experiment who was told to not notice the smoke, only 10% reported the smoke or left the room. The remaining 90% stayed in the room and worked on the questionnaire, some actually rubbing their eyes and waving the smoke away, so they had obviously seen the smoke.

This study showed that as a group, people respond more slowly or even not at all when it comes to an emergency situation. For if the majority of the group are not bothered, we take it that we should not be either.

Closing thoughts

These behavioral psychology studies show that we can be influenced in many different ways, from the people around us, to the way people address us, and even what people tell us has happened.

It doesn’t have to be like this, next time you see something that you feel is wrong, stand up and address it. You never know, your fellow onlookers might be waiting for someone to act, why shouldn’t it be you?



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