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Social Psychology Experiments

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Social Psychology Experiments

A murder. A doll. A prison. A classroom. What do these all have in common? They're all part of some of the most famous social psychology research studies!

  • What is a social psychology experiment?

  • What are the different types of research in social psychology?
  • What are some classic experiments in social psychology?
  • What are some famous experiments in social psychology?
  • What is an example of a recent experiment in social psychology?

Definition of Social Experiment in Psychology

Since psychology is the study of human behavior and mental processes, and social refers to our interactions with others, social psychology experiments study both of these things together.

Social psychology experiments use many different research methods to explore how social interactions impact behaviors and mental processes.

Social psychology is a broad field with many experiments. An actual experiment includes an independent variable that the researcher manipulates and a dependent variable that shows the outcome of the experiment. There might also be a control group of participants who do not play a part in the variable that the researcher manipulates. The experimental group of participants gets to experience what the researcher wants to study.

Scientific Method

Social psychologists today are bound to the principles of the scientific method and the ethical standards of scientific research. They want to produce studies that are safe for participants and can be replicated by other researchers. Study results are published and critiqued by peer scientists. The more a study is replicated, the more confident we can be about the results.

Types of Social Psychology Experiments

Since social psychology is a broad field, the topics are also expansive, with various options. If it relates to people and interpersonal relationships, it can be studied in social psychology research.

There are many possibilities, but here are a few of the most prominent subjects:

  • Group dynamics: How do groups socialize? How do they make decisions?

  • Conformity, compliance, and obedience: How strong are the social pressures to go along with the group rather than stand out? If someone in authority tells you what to do, will you do it?

  • Aggression and antisocial behavior: How do the different theories of aggression work out in society? How impactful are microaggressions and antisocial behavior?

  • Attitude and attitude changes: What causes someone to change their attitude?

Other social psychology concepts include interpersonal perception, the bystander effect, deindividuation, altruism, prejudice, self-fulfilling prophecies, and social facilitation. As you can see, there are so many topics to explore in this field.

Classic Social Psychology Experiments

Many classic social psychology experiments took place in the twentieth century and help shape our understanding of certain topics today. Some of these classic studies are the Robbers Cave State Park experiment, the murder of Kitty Genovese, Jane Elliot's classroom study, and Bandura's Bobo doll experiment.

Robbers Cave State Park

Sherif (1954) believed in the realistic conflict theory: prejudice and discrimination will occur when two groups compete for limited resources. He decided to test this theory at an all-boys summer camp, where he split the boys into two groups. During the first week of the camp, the two groups participated in various activities that helped the boys develop bonds with others in their group. After the groups spent time apart, Sherif brought the groups back together and had them compete against each other.

The Results

The result was high tension and prejudice towards the other group. Sherif found that, despite negative feelings towards the other group, when he tasked them with working towards a shared goal, hostility decreased. He stated that the groups of boys were at odds because of the competition for resources. When the competition was removed, and the boys had to work together, their negative feelings towards the other group subsided.

The Bystander Effect

In 1964, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman, was murdered outside her apartment building in Queens, New York. When she was initially stabbed, she didn't die but ran through the street calling for help. Her attacker left, came back, and then finished his fatal attack. Neighbors in the apartment building nearby could hear and see this murder. The entire event lasted for about 15 minutes. Apparently, no one called 911, and no police showed up on the scene.

Social Psychology Experiments, a photograph of the outside of an apartment building with blue trim on all the windows and door, StudySmarterBystanders, pixabay.com

While this story is not a psychological experiment, it sheds so much light on the phenomenon called the bystander effect. The bystander effect states that people are less likely to aid someone in an emergency when other people are around. Each person thinks that others will help, so they do not feel compelled to step up. In the devastating case of Kitty Genovese, almost no one called for help, even though there were many bystanders.

Eye Color in the Classroom

In 1968, Jane Elliot conducted an experiment about racism in her US school classroom that was so revolutionary it is still discussed today. As students were coming into the classroom, she separated them by eye color: blue or brown. Blue-eyed students were treated as people of color, and brown-eyed students were treated as white. Elliot and the brown-eyed students then spoke to the blue-eyed students in similar ways that people of color were spoken to in the US at the time.

The Results

What do you think the results were? The blue-eyed students became visibly upset, angry, or simply shut down and refused to make eye contact. They accepted their fate as being treated worse than those with brown eyes, even though it was just an experiment at school. Also, those with brown eyes became more verbally aggressive towards those with blue eyes, even though they did not treat each other this way before the experiment.

The Bobo Doll

From 1961 to 1963, Albert Bandura conducted experiments on social learning theory in children. He was curious how children would act based on being exposed to adults modeling different behaviors. The children watched adults interact with a Bobo doll: an inflatable doll weighted at the bottom so it would always return to a standing position after it was hit or punched. They played with the Bobo doll aggressively, not aggressively, or not at all.

The Results

As predicted, the children exposed to aggressive behavior imitated that behavior as they played with the Bobo doll. Additionally, the girls in the study were verbally aggressive if they saw a woman interacting with the Bobo doll and physically aggressive if they saw a man interacting with the doll.

Famous Social Psychology Experiments

Along with the classic social psychology experiments, other studies are considered famous or foundational to the field.

The Halo Effect

In 1977, Nisbett and Wilson created a study to investigate the halo effect. This psychological principle states that when we feel positive about one aspect of someone, this favorable opinion will cause us to feel positive about other traits of that same person. It's like a halo! It spreads out to encompass more than just the initial aspect we liked.

The researchers had college students watch a pre-recorded tape of a lecture. They either watched a video of a professor who was nice and understanding or a video of the same professor acting cold and condescending.

The Results

Nisbett and Wilson found that the students who watched the video of the professor when he was likeable rated him higher in terms of his physical appearance, accent, and mannerisms. Those who watched the unfavorable video ranked him lower in those same categories, even though the only thing that changed was how the professor acted! His appearance, accent, and mannerisms were the same; the students rated them more highly if they liked how the professor behaved.

Milgram Experiment

Stanley Milgram, an American psychologist, began conducting experiments in the 1960s on the effects of obedience. His most famous experiment, now known as the Milgram Experiment, studied how and under what conditions people will be obedient to authority figures, even if it means harming someone else or doing something wrong.

There were three main players in this experiment: the experimenter, the participant, and the confederate. The participant was told they were participating in a study about learning. They were told that there was another participant (who was a confederate or part of the study) called the learner on the other side of a wall. The participant was informed that they were to read questions to the learner.

If the learner answered them incorrectly, the participant would administer a shock to the learner. Every time the learner answered incorrectly, the level of shock would increase until it reached 450 volts (enough to kill someone).

The Results

To everyone’s surprise, 65 percent of the participants obeyed the experimenter's orders and completed the last 450-volt shock to the learner. (The learner was not actually harmed during this experiment. They pretended to be hurt by yelling and asking the participant to stop administering the shocks.)

Part of the reason Milgram conducted this study was his theory about the Holocaust. He wondered why so many Nazis went along with Hitler’s scheme to wipe out an entire population of people. Were they evil or just being obedient to those in authority? Although this experiment is one of the most famous social psychology experiments ever conducted, it cannot be reproduced due to ethical concerns for the participants.

Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment focused on how people conform to social roles. During one summer, researcher Philip Zimbardo recruited 24 young men from the Stanford University student body to be in an experiment. He screened them beforehand to make sure they were mentally and physically healthy and that none of them was friends or acquaintances with each other. Zimbardo and his colleagues then assigned half of the participants to be "prison guards" and the other half to be "prisoners."

Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a prison in the basement of one of the Stanford buildings. Over the next few days, he had the "prisoners" reside in cells just like real prisoners, and he had the "prison guards" perform their duties just like real guards. He wanted to see if the young men would take on the stereotypical characteristics of prisoners and correctional officers in how they treated each other.

The Results

The guards became hostile and harmful towards the prisoners, and the prisoners became submissive and reserved. Throughout the first few days of the experiment, three prisoners had mental breakdowns and had to leave. On the sixth day of the experiment, Zimbardo terminated the study due to outrage from a fellow professor. Through this study, the researchers determined that people will adopt the behaviors that go along with a conventional social role whether or not the behaviors are right or wrong.

Asch’s Line Study

Polish-American psychologist Solomon Asch conducted the most famous experiment on conformity. Just like Milgram, the experiment was so famous that it includes his name in the title: Asch’s Line Study. In the 1950s, Asch set up his experiment with one participant in a room with a group of confederates or pretend participants. The group was shown a line drawn on a chalkboard and told they had to match it to one of three other lines drawn on the same board.

It was pretty obvious which line of the three matched with the other. Asch wanted to see if the one real participant would give an answer that was obviously wrong if all the other "participants" gave the wrong answer. In the beginning, though, the confederates all agreed with the participant and answered correctly. As the trials continued, the confederates began to intentionally answer incorrectly. Would the participant continue answering correctly or conform to the wrong answer given by the rest of the group?

The Results

It turned out that 75 percent of the participants answered incorrectly when the confederates gave an incorrect answer. These results show that people conform due to social pressure and a desire to fit in. The participants felt like they would be judged or potentially ostracized if they did not conform to the group, even though they were obviously answering the question wrong.

Recent Example of Social Psychology Experiments

Famous and classic social psychology experiments were conducted decades ago, but interesting research is still taking place in the field today.

Recently, researchers conducted a study (2021) on how women are affected by the sexualization of female characters in video games. They recruited female participants to play the Sims 4 video game with a female character that was either hypersexualized, normal or generic, or tailored to look like the person playing the game. The researchers hypothesized that those playing with the sexualized character would experience lower levels of body satisfaction and higher self-objectification after playing the game.

Interestingly, the researcher's hypothesis was not confirmed! There was no statistically significant difference in body satisfaction and self-objectification between the women who played the sexualized and other versions of the game. This is just one example of the kind of research being conducted in social psychology today.

Famous Experiments in Social Psychology - Key takeaways

  • Social psychology experiments use different research methods to study how social interactions impact behaviors and mental processes.
    • Some of the most prominent subjects in social psychology research are group dynamics; conformity, compliance, and obedience; aggression and antisocial behavior; and attitudes and attitude changes.
    • Other social psychology concepts include interpersonal perception, the bystander effect, deindividuation, altruism, prejudice, self-fulfilling prophecies, and social facilitation.
  • Kitty Genovese's murder sheds light on the phenomenon called the bystander effect.
  • In 1968, Jane Elliot conducted an experiment about racism in her US school classroom.
  • From 1961 to 1963, Albert Bandura conducted experiments on social learning theory in children.
    • The children were exposed to an adult interacting with the Bobo doll aggressively, not aggressively, or not at all. As predicted, the children exposed to aggressive behavior imitated that behavior as they played with the Bobo doll.
  • In 1977, Nisbett and Wilson created a study to investigate the halo effect. This psychological principle states that when we feel positive about one aspect of someone, this favorable opinion will cause us to feel positive about other traits of that same person.
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment focused on how people conform to social roles. During one summer, researcher Philip Zimbardo recruited 24 young men from the Stanford University student body to be in an experiment.

Frequently Asked Questions about Social Psychology Experiments

One of the most famous experiments in psychology is the Milgram experiment. 

Social psychology experiments focus on studying human interactions and how varying factors can influence behaviors and attitudes. 

The Stanford prison experiment focused on conforming to a social role and showed how impactful this principle could be. 

Social experiments aim to study social psychological principles, human behaviors, and interactions. 

An example of a social experiment is Asch’s line study which explored conformity. 

Final Social Psychology Experiments Quiz

Question

What is experimental research?

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Answer

Researchers manipulating variables to determine the relationship between the dependent and independent variables 

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Question

What did the Milgram experiment study?

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Answer

Obedience. Will participants be obedient to an authority figure (the experimenter) even if it goes against their morals?

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Question

What were the findings of the Milgram experiment?

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Answer

65% of the participants administered the top level of shock to the learner (450V)

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Question

What did the Stanford Prison experiment study?

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Answer

Conforming to social roles. Do people act the way they do because of the way they are or because of the social role they are in?

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Question

What were the findings of the Stanford prison experiment?

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Answer

The Stanford participants conformed to the social role so intently that they had to terminate the experiment early

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Question

What did the Asch line experiment study?

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Answer

Conformity. Would the participant conform to what people in the group would say even if they're wrong?

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Question

What were the findings of Asch's line experiment?

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Answer

75% of the participants conformed at least one, showing the effects of social influence 

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Question

What did the Bobo Doll experiment study?

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Answer

Social learning theory! Would children imitate the aggressive behavior that they see adults do?

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Question

What were the findings of the Bobo Doll experiment?

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Answer

Children who saw adults acting aggressively imitated their behavior 

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Question

What principle does the Kitty Genovese murder show?

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Answer

Bystander effect

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Question

What theory does the Robbers Cave State Park study show?

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Answer

Realistic conflict theory

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Question

How did Jane Elliot demonstrate racism in the classroom?

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Answer

By splitting up the students based on eye color and acting discriminatory towards those with blue eyes

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Question

What is the halo effect?

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Answer

When we feel positively about one aspect of someone, this favorableness will then make us feel positively about other traits of that same person

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Question

What were the findings of the halo effect study by Nisbett and Wilson?

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Answer

When students liked the professor's teaching methods more, they found other aspects of his personality and persona better as well

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Question

What did the study on the sexualization of female game characters show?

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Answer

That women are not impacted by the sexualization of female game characters

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