7 Dreadful Psychological Experiments (and why science may have benefited from them)

When it comes to psychological experiments the period spanning the 40 years or so after the end of World War II was nothing short of scary.

Scientists were physically administering electric shocks to people with sometimes, high doses of electricity, putting others (often children) through severe mental and physical trauma and abusing animals to an extent that doesn’t even bare thinking about for a compassionate human being.

We also had the authorities at Harvard turning a blind eye to experiments with LSD in a basement conducted by students trying to make contact with God, and subjecting a man by the name of Ted Kaczynski to 3-years of humiliation and anguish in the name of science.

In case you don’t know, Kaczynski later went on to be the Unabomber and killed 3-people. You can decide whether the authorities at Harvard deserve any culpability in regard to his later actions.

It’s almost unfathomable now to think of any of the following experiments being sanctioned.

However, that doesn’t mean that the ones already conducted don’t offer an amazing insight into the human psyche.

So, prepare to be appalled, as well as fascinated by what is to follow.

7 Dreadful Psychological Experiments


1. The Stanford Prison Psychological Experiment

This notorious experiment has spawned books and even movies such were the shocking results and conclusions.

In 1971, Psychologist Philip Zimbardo constructed a fake prison under (ironically) the Stanford psyche department and kitted it out with survey cameras so all the action could be filmed.

He recruited 24 undergraduates to either play the part of an inmate, or that of a prison guard.

Whereas the prisoners were kept in their cells 24/7 the guards were rotated on 8-hour shifts.

The guards were instructed to be strict and not to tolerate any ‘trouble makers’ or disobedience.

It didn’t take them long to follow their instructions, when on day 2 the prisoners rebelled and blockaded their cells.

The 2-week experiment lasted a mere 6-days when the ‘prisoners’ were pulled out with Zimbardo starting to fear for, not just their safety, but their lives.

Less than a week was all it took for the guards to resort to shocking tactics of sexual humiliation as well as psychological and physical abuse.

Some prisoners were already showing signs of learned helplessness and depression.

The Take Away

As human beings we all have the capacity to act in appalling ways under extreme circumstances.

In 1939 there were almost 70 million Germans on this planet, do you really think that more than a tiny minority were anti-Semitic or wanted to rule the world?

These students weren’t unusual and if you’d been one of them you would have almost certainly acted in a similar manner – even though you probably think you wouldn’t.


electric fence

2. Stanley Milgram’s Shocking Experiment

Milgram’s is possible the most famous psychological experiment of all time and almost as concerning as the Stanford experiment.

He hypothesized that the followers and enablers of Adolf Eichmann one of the most instrumental Nazis when it came to organizing the Holocaust, may be no more than normal people submitting to authority.

Milgram told his pairs of subjects that he was conducting an experiment on memory and then assigned one of the pair as the teacher and one the pupil or learner.

Unbeknown to the person who was assigned to be the teacher in each experiment (it was done through a rigged ballot), the other person was really an actor aware of the real purpose of the experiment.

The teacher and student were split into separate rooms and the teacher was then instructed to apply an electric shock to the other person every time they got a question wrong.

The severity of the ‘shocks’ were increased incrementally and the participants could even hear the other person screaming in pain.

Yet by and large they kept applying the shocks to such a level that there would have been a lot of explaining to do with dead bodies and severely damaged people if they had been real.

Some resisted at first and said they didn’t like administering the pain, but continued to do so when told by the man in a white coat it was all part of the experiment.

The Take Away

Not only are we all capable of inflicting pain upon others, we are also massively influenced by authority figures and under such ‘perfect storm’ situations all rational behavior evaporates.

If a person in authority (or even perceived authority)  delivers a message over and over again from a position of power, eventually we start to believe it,

In the meantime I’m off to buy a white coat.

helping hand

The Good Samaritan Experiment

Over 40 Princeton students were recruited to supposedly deliver a talk on another part of campus in the early 1970’s.

When getting their instructions they were then primed with one of three statements designed to elicit mild, moderate and severe urgency in terms of how quickly they needed to get to the venue and start their talk.

On their route the experimenters had positioned a man doubled up in pain, coughing uncontrollably and obviously in a lot of distress and in need of help.

They wanted to see what effect the urgency of the instructions had on the students likelihood of stopping to help.

Less than 50% of students stopped at all and a mere 10% of those who were told their talk had to start quickly and people were waiting for them.

Some literally even stepped over the man and didn’t stop.

The irony was that these were Seminary students and half were told they were giving talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Take Away

Many of us will help others, but the likelihood of us doing so is dependent on so many factors, not least of which is, are we in a hurry or not?

marshmallow experiment

4. The One Marshmallow Or Two Experiment?

Another famous Stanford experiment from the 1960’s led by Walter Mischel involved testing the ability of children to resist short-term pleasure for longer-term gain.

4-year-old children were placed in a room one at a time with a bowl of marshmallows and not a fat lot else to focus their attention on.

They were then told that they could either eat one marshmallow now, or they could have two when the experimenter returned in 15 minutes time.

The majority of children opted for the latter option, but then caved in when left alone to their own devices.

You may think that wasn’t very surprising, after all most kids like shoveling sweet shit into their mouths and self control isn’t usually a word adopted to describe 4-year-olds.

However, the real genius of the experiment was the follow up and tracking of the participants.

The kids who resisted were far less likely to have issues with drink and/or drugs later on in life and overall were far more successful than the kids who gave into temptation.

The Take Away

Maybe teaching kids self control should be higher up our collective agendas?

eye close up

5. The Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes Experiment

The day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, teacher Jane Elliott decided that she wanted to help her third-grade students understand the consequences of being a minority in a Society rife with racism, fear and hatred.

With their permission (although being given permission by an 8-year-old for such an experiment is dubious at best) she split the group into those with blue eyes and those with not.

She declared that blue-eyed people were superior and treated that group accordingly by being more relaxed about discipline with them, giving them longer recess times and paying them more attention.

The other children were ordered to sit at the back of the class and were treated harshly and with contempt.

The most staggering part of this ad lib experiment was the fact that as soon as the end of just the first day massive changes had already taken place.

The blue-eyed children who had been previously struggling started to perform better and similarly the smarter brown-eyed kids were all of a sudden struggling.

Not only that, but the blue-eyed kids soon started to taunt the others and gloat.

Elliott was wise enough to flip the exercise after the first day to give both sides the opportunity to understand what it feels like to be treated in such a manner.

An important finding in an experiment that has been replicated many times with the same results, was that the dark-eyed kids didn’t taunt their fellow students to the extent that they had been taunted.

The Take Away

It seems that for the most part we find it difficult (although of course by no means impossible) to truly empathize with minorities.

Unless that is, we too have been treated poorly because we belonged to a minority group first.

Some people have never been treated poorly by minorities because they were/are too powerful.

guy window

6. The Bystander Effect Experiment

In 1964 Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York in full view of an undetermined number of people, but in all probability well over 20, but probably less than the 38 reported at the time.

Her assailant, Winston Moseley didn’t even kill her quickly.

After stabbing her once and somebody shouting at him to ‘leave her alone‘ he ran back to his car, only to return shortly after to stab her multiple times as she lay on the ground bleeding.

The media were up in arms at how many people had failed to do anything and it sparked a storm that has never quite abated.

The Bystander Effect is the belief that the more people who witness a scene such as the one above, the less any one individual is likely to do anything about it.

Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane decided to test this theory 4 years after the event.

This time however they used the ruse of somebody having a life-threatening seizure and as per the Milgram experiment the study group could not see the person in trouble only hear them.

The results were startling similar to what happened with Kitty Genovese.

The more people who were aware of the person needing help, the less likely anybody was to offer it.

The Take Away

On an early Coach The Life Coach course I was looking for volunteers for a couple of processes I wanted to teach.

I sent out a blanket e-mail asking people to step forward.

Nobody did.

What I should have done was e-mail people individually and ask them if they’d care to help out.

So if you ever find yourself in medical difficulty surrounded by strangers, don’t cry for help in general.

Instead point at one person and say, “You there, I think I’m about to shuffle off this mortal coil, could you possibly arrange for an ambulance my good fellow” Or something like that.

bald eagle

7. The Robbers Cave Experiment

In the summer of 1954 two buses picked up two groups of eleven 12-year-old boys and took them to Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.

None of the boys knew any of the others in their group and neither group knew of the existence of the other, at least for the first week.

After the first week social psychologist Muzafer Sherif arranged for the boys to meet one another and for a competitive element to be introduced.

Already the boys had created distinct group cultures culminating in giving themselves the names of ‘The Rattlers’ and ‘The Eagles’.

However, this was taken to a whole new level when it was announced there would be a series of competitions including a baseball game.

The Rattlers took over the field immediately even planting a flag to demonstrate that they now owned the field even before the game had gotten underway.

From thereon in things deteriorated rapidly from name calling and verbal abuse to ransacking of the ‘oppositions’ living quarters and stealing of property.

Like The Stanford Prison Experiment the organizers soon had to step in to avoid the very real chance of physical violence.

During a 2-day cooling off period the boys were asked questions about one another and even though only 2-weeks earlier they had never met any people in their group they still viewed them far more favorably.

The Take Away

From an ethical stand point like a number of these experiments it leaves a lot to be desired. All the participants were white and all boys aged 12, so it’s hardly representative.

However, we see this kind of behavior all the time and at almost every level.

A certain unnamed President has crushed it!

He has taken the ‘us and them’ model to a whole new level.

But do you know why, and maybe more importantly, how, he has done that?

Because he can, and because too many people have allowed him to.

And (for the most part) they are not bad people – they have just been conned by a second-rate car sales person who understands cognitive biases.

So what’s your take?

I’d love to hear on the comments.