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Shocking Psychology Experiments

Psychology explained

July 2021

Shocking Psychology Experiments

Experimental psychology is a wide field filled with interesting studies which have shocking results, although they have helped us to understand our behavior and emotions. Let me show you 5 famous psychology experiments and their results!

1. Selective attention test

Let’s start with an experiment about selective attention which was done by Harvard Psychologists Daniel Simon and Christopher Chabris. Now the fun part- you can actually try the experiment now. Just follow the instructions on this video: Here is the video.

Done? Okay! What was your result?

The clip is the same video that Simon and Chabris showed to many participants. In the year 1999 they published a study confirming that when we focus our attention closely on something, we tend to miss other significant changes in what we’re actually looking at. 46% of respondents didn’t notice the unexpected event happening in the video. That is because our attention really is selective.

The study was repeated and slightly changed or extended. Here you can see Daniel Simon’s study from 2010. You can try the experiment again with this video, it could be new for you even though you tried the first one. Here you go.

2. Marshmallow experiment- Delayed gratification

Stanford professor Walter Mischel with his team tested hundreds of 4-5 years old children to investigate the phenomenon of delayed gratification. You can find this information and much more in James Clear’s article here.

In the beginning, the researchers let the child take a seat. They put a marshmallow on a table in front of the child. Then the researcher told the child that they would leave the room, and if the child didn’t eat the marshmallow until the researcher returned, the child could be rewarded with a second marshmallow - if the child ate the marshmallow, they would not. Then the researcher then left the child alone with the marshmallow for 15 minutes (results published in 1972 here). Some kids ate the marshmallow right when the researcher left, but some waited and were rewarded with the second marshmallow. Of course, watching the children having their inner fight and trying to resist the sweet temptation is quite funny (check it out here!).

Years after the experiment, researchers made follow-up studies when the children from the experiment grew up. IT turned out that those children who waited for the second marshmallow then had better SAT scores, a lower likelihood of obesity, managed stress better (according to their parents), had better social skills, and a lower level of substance abuse. This study showed that delay of gratification could be a good predictor of success. Studies are here, here, and here.

3. Milgram’s experiment

Holocaust was a tragic and awful period of our history. After the end of World War II, people questioned humanity - ‘How could anyone do that? How could Hitler’s soldiers just follow orders and let so many innocent people suffer in such horrible conditions? How could they kill so many people? Are they all psychopaths?’

Yale’s psychologist Stanley Milgram was interested in this topic, and after he heard the defense of Adolf Eichmann (who organized the deportation of Jews), decided to conduct an experiment based on ‘obedience’.

Milgram took two people and let them draw lots for who would be in the position of a learner and who would be a teacher - but the draw was fixed, so it was known in advance who would be in the ‘learner’ role. The learner was a hired actor or someone Milgram knew. The ‘teacher’ was a participant who replied to Milgram's newspaper advertisement.

The ‘teacher’ was told that this experiment is about the influence of punishment on learning abilities. The ‘learner’ needed to go through a list of paired words (for example couch-potato…) and then memorize the pairs and put the right words together. He was strapped to a chair and had electrodes placed on his arms. The ‘teacher’ was instructed to test how the ‘learner’ memorized the pairs of worlds and if he made a mistake, the ‘teacher’ should give the ‘learner’ an electric shock. The ‘teacher’ had 30 switches with the voltage from 15 volts to 450 volts. The switches were also labeled with different levels of electrocution - the first few were marked as ‘slight shock’, the last marked as ‘danger-severe shock.’ The ‘learner’ made quite a lot of mistakes on purpose, and after each one of them the ‘teacher’ was supposed to give a higher shock than before. The experimenter told the ‘teacher’ that the shock could be very painful but wouldn’t have long-term consequences and the ‘learner’ would recover. After the shock (which was fake of course) the ‘learner’ painfully screamed and trembled. The very last two switches were marked as XXX.

When the ‘teacher’ didn’t want to continue to give higher shocks, Milgrim had prepared phrases to use. After first refusing to obey, he said: ‘Please continue,’ after second he said,‘The experiment requires you to continue,’ then ‘It is absolutely essential that you continue’ and the fourth sentence was ‘You have no other choice but to continue.’

The experiment was done with 40 men who were 20-50 years old, and had various jobs.The results of this experiment from 1963 were shocking. 65% of participants generated the highest possible shock and everyone generated at least a 300V shock.

Milgram did more experiments and changed the design or the environment. He was also trying to explain the results; one theory is that obedience is connected to the authority of scientists, another talking about obedience as natural behavior which helps us survive and form a functional cooperative collective. The experiment was often criticized and labeled unethical.

I hope you found this article interesting and that you learn some surprising facts about the human mind. Congratulations to those who were able to spot the gorilla in the first experiment.

Author: Pája Macečková

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