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Thursday, 17 April 2008

Psychology experiments - Zimbardo and Milgram

I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Bristol, in Psychology. It was a fascinating three years, and always relevant: i.e. it's about people.

I did a variety of modules
  • Social - about groups of people
  • Developmental - "from sperm to worm" apparently ;-)
  • Neuropsychology - about the brain and its physical functioning
  • Neuropsychopharmacology - chemicals in the brain, and also the effect of recreational drugs
  • etc.
This post is all about giving me an excuse to re-visit a couple of top experiments - basically social psychology, about how compliant people can be to authority. They involve two titans of the field, Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram.

Most of the following text is taken from Wikipedia.

Philip Zimbardo

"In the year 1971, Zimbardo accepted a tenured position as professor of psychology at Stanford University. There he conducted the infamous Stanford prison experiment, in which 24 normal college students were randomly assigned to be "prisoners" or "guards" in a mock prison located in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford (three additional college students were selected as alternates, but did not participate in the experiment).

The students quickly began acting out their roles, with "guards" becoming sadistic and "prisoners" showing extreme passivity and depression. Prisoners and guards rapidly adapted to their roles, stepping beyond the boundaries of what had been predicted and leading to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations. One-third of the guards were judged to have exhibited "genuine" sadistic tendencies, while many prisoners were emotionally traumatized and four had to be removed from the experiment early.

Ethical concerns surrounding the famous experiment often draw comparisons to the Milgram experiment, which was conducted in 1961 at Yale University by Stanley Milgram, Zimbardo's former high school friend."

Stanley Milgram

"The experiment

The role of the experimenter was played by a stern, impassive biology teacher dressed in a technician's coat, and the victim (learner) was played by an Irish-American accountant trained to act for the role. The participant and the learner (supposedly another volunteer, but in reality a confederate of the experimenter) were told by the experimenter that they would be participating in an experiment helping his study of memory and learning in different situations.[1]

Two slips of paper were then presented to the participant and to the actor. The participant was led to believe that one of the slips said "learner" and the other said "teacher," and that he and the actor had been given the slips randomly. In fact, both slips said "teacher," but the actor claimed to have the slip that read "learner," thus guaranteeing that the participant would always be the "teacher." At this point, the "teacher" and "learner" were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. In one version of the experiment, the confederate was sure to mention to the participant that he had a heart condition.[1]

The "teacher" was given a 45-volt electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the "learner" would supposedly receive during the experiment. The "teacher" was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing for each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.[1]

The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, all responses by the learner would cease.[1]

At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.[1]

If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:[1]

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession. This experiment could be seen to raise some ethical issues as the experimenter did not truthfully tell the people involved what the real test was for."


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