Social psychology experiments can give us great insight into how we think, behave and act.

They help us to explain how our thoughts are influenced by others, how group dynamics work, and how we perceive others.

Here are six of the most important social psychology experiments:

1. The Milgram Experiment

After the atrocities of WW2, scientists wanted to know why a race of people did not speak out, and moreover, why they carried out tasks that were deemed to go against the very fabric of society.

Stanley Milgram (1963) set up an experiment in which participants were told to apply electrical shocks to another participant in another room. What the participants did not know was the person in the other room was in on the experiment and told to scream when the higher levels of power were applied.

Milgram wanted to know how far people would go in obeying an instruction if that instruction meant hurting another person.

Results showed that 65% of participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts. Milgram surmised that people will obey orders if they perceive these orders to be from someone in authority and they can relinquish their responsibility.

2. The Conformity Experiment

The Conformity experiment (1951), one of the most important social psychology experiments, took male students and put them in a room with eight other participants.

These eight were in on the experiment, unbeknown to the male students. The tests were simple enough; three lines of differing lengths were compared to a reference line and the whole group had to pick the line that was the same length.

The right answer was obvious but as the researcher went down the group, all those in on the experiment chose the wrong line. So would the student go along with the group or would they be assertive and chose the correct line?

The results showed that 50% followed the group and gave the wrong answer. Only 25% went against the group and over all the trials the average conformity rate was 33%. This appears to show that our willingness to fit in will override our wish to stand out.

3. The Halo Effect

The ‘halo effect’ is a kind of bias where our evaluation of the person leads us to make assumptions about the rest of their character.

One good example of the halo effect is how we perceive celebrities. They are often portrayed as beautiful, handsome, and wealthy. Because of these characteristics, we are more likely to think they are also funny, intelligent, and kind.

One favourable judgement about a person’s personality tends to bleed over into other judgments that are also favourable.

4. Sherif Robbers Cave Experiment

Muzafer Sherif’s most famous experiment is the ‘Robber’s Cave, 1954’, in which he wanted to understand group dynamics, in particular – conflict, negative prejudices, and stereotypes that people experience when groups are competing for resources.

Twenty-two boys were split randomly into two groups and transported to a summer camp, where they were separated with no knowledge of the other group. The boys chose names for their groups; the Rattlers and the Eagles. They spent a week bonding with the members of their group, then a competition stage was introduced.

The two groups met for the first time and competed for resources, prizes, and trophies. Despite the groups having only spent a week together, they were solid in their bonds and immediately started to show prejudice against the other group. At first, it was verbal assaults, then the abuse grew physical.

In the end, the two groups were so aggressive towards each other that researchers had to step in. Even after a two-day cooling off period, the boys were still describing their group in favourable terms and the others in less so terms.

Results suggest that we have an innate need to be in a group and will behave favourably to our group against others.

5. Stanford Prison Experiment

One of the most well-known social psychology experiments, the Stanford Prison Experiment was devised by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. It was focused on the effects of perceived power, in particular, the struggle between guards and prisoners.

In the experiment, young men were given roles as either guards or prisoners and moved to a prison-like environment in the basement of Stanford University.

It soon became clear that the men given the roles as guards took their roles very seriously and began to abuse the prisoners, both verbally and psychologically. The prisoners appeared to accept their role and accepted the abuse without question. After only six days the situation was so intense that it had to be called off.

The researchers decided that it was the situation we are in that determines our behaviour, and not our individual personalities.

6. How stereotypes affect our judgement

Do we make instant judgements based on stereotypes? In one test, John Bargh (1996) divided 34 participants into 3 groups and subconsciously ‘programmed’ these groups into a different state; rude, polite, and neutral.

In order to do this, the participants were given word puzzles to work out. To install the different states into the three groups, each word puzzle’s answers related to words that defined that particular state, for instance for polite, words used were ‘courteous’, ‘patiently’ and ‘behaved’.

In order to do this, the participants were given word puzzles to work out. To install the different states into the three groups, each word puzzle’s answers related to words that defined that particular state, for instance for polite, words used were ‘courteous’, ‘patiently’ and ‘behaved’.

When they had finished, they were asked to talk to the lead experimenter, who was spotted in deep in conversation with someone. They had a choice whether to interrupt his conversation, wait for him to finish, or walk away.

Of the group that had been programmed with rude words, 64% interrupted the experimenter, compared to just 18% of participants programmed with polite words. The neutral condition recorded 36% interrupting.

The results showed that unconscious cues can lead to a change in our behaviour.

As you see from the above social psychology experiments, human nature is so susceptible to social conditioning that it sometimes makes people do truly crazy things.



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