Applied Psychology

The Most Famous Social Experiments

Feb 07, 2024 | By Jenna van Schoor
Group of business people preparing for a social experiment

Researchers conduct social experiments to study human behaviour. We might think we know how we would react in a particular situation, but studies can show otherwise. We often don’t realise how much outside influences or specific environments affect our thinking and behaviour.

The most famous social experiments conducted over the past century come with ethical questions. Did the researchers have an unwitting agenda or bias when they conducted the study? And, is it ethical to put people into situations where they are coerced or aren’t in control?

Ethical studies of  people and their behaviour can give us fascinating insights into social behaviour. By demonstrating how we behave in controlled settings, we can develop theories and predict how people might operate in hypothetical or future situations.

We’ll now discuss some of the most famous social experiments to learn more.

1. Asch’s Conformity Experiments

Psychologist Solomon Asch conducted social studies in the 1950s that showed how people conformed in social situations, even when they thought they wouldn’t.

Asch included people in the studies who would intentionally give wrong answers to questions. For example, a research facilitator asked a group member to choose the longest line in a series of lines, and the “insiders” gave the wrong answer. 

By having “inside” people in the experiment who chose the wrong answer, people presumably started to doubt themselves. The study showed that people often answer incorrectly to go along with the group.

Overall, we need to look at the context in which these experiments were conducted. The political climate, social norms and many other factors had an influence, as well as people’s personalities and upbringing. However, these studies were valuable because they led to further research.

2. Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment

To research whether or not children imitate violent behaviour seen on television, psychologist Alfred Bandura used Bobo dolls in one of the most famous social experiments. For those who don’t know, a Bobo doll is an inflatable toy about the size of a child which bounces back up if you hit it. 

In his studies, children watched adults who behaved passively and violently towards the doll. Through this study, he showed that children were likely to imitate the violent behaviour exhibited towards the doll. Essentially, that we learn through observing others.

Although there is still a debate about whether or not watching violent television makes children more violent, Bandura’s work opened up a field of research that continues today.

3. The Standford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment is notorious because of ethical concerns about how it was conducted. In the experiment, Phillip Zimbardo set up a fake prison in the Stanford Psychology Department’s basement to study how people in the roles of prisoners and guards would behave in this simulated environment.

Unfortunately, one of the reasons this study is so well known is that it had to be shut down after six days. It was meant to last for two weeks. The reasons for the shutdown were that people who were playing prison guards became so immersed in their role that they became abusive, and the “prisoners” started to experience emotional and physical distress. 

This experiment has many ethical problems, but it became a powerful example of how people are influenced by their surroundings and the darker side of human nature. One of the most problematic aspects is that Zimbardo, the leading researcher, played the prison warden’s role. Some believe participants may also have faked their behaviour or obeyed instructions to help create an abusive environment.

4. The Milgram Experiments

After World War Two, Stanley Milgram wanted to study how and why people obeyed after their involvement in certain war crimes. One of the main questions he wanted to ask was whether people involved in war crimes were just following orders. Or were they accomplices?

To carry out his experiments, Milgram got people to pretend they were receiving electric shocks from others ordered to “torture” others. The people on the receiving side knew they weren’t being shocked, but the others didn’t and truly believed they were hurting the other person. 

Shockingly, even when those being shocked complained of being in pain, 65% of people continued to shock them according to the orders they were receiving. These results show that people would often remain obedient and follow orders even when their actions were causing distress.

Like many other social experiments, Milgram’s experiments are also ethically problematic due to the psychological distress that it would have caused many people to be in this situation in the first place. Subsequent criticism of the studies has also revealed that many people were coerced into continuing, and many had realised that the other person was faking. Despite the study’s problematic aspects, it shows how coercion and social pressure affect our behaviour.

Learn more about social psychology

All of these experiments show how social influences impact individual behaviour. Would you like to learn more about the power of social influence and how social behaviour can shape our actions? Sign up for our most recently launched online micro-credential courses, Social Influences on Human Behaviour and Social Identity Formation.

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