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To what extent can one deceive a person in a psychological experiment? How much pressure can researchers exert? Can you scare a child to study fear?
Throughout the twentieth century science was developing a strict ethical code about what can and can not be done in an experiment and the field of human psychology is no exception.
Among the key factors of this deontological code are the proportionality between the benefits and risks of an investigation, the voluntary, free and informed participation of the subjects, respect for the dignity of the participants and the provision of a special protection for the people more vulnerable, like children.
Deception, for example, a common factor in many experiments, is now highly regulated and even prohibited by the ethical code of many schools of psychologists.
But it was not always like this.
Paradoxically, some sociological experiments that today would not meet the ethical standards by far, became great references for psychology, and helped us to understand different aspects, sometimes obscure, of human behavior.
Here we present three of the best known.
1. The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority ( 1963 )
The inspiration for this experiment, carried out in 1963 by the psychologist Stanley Milgram, of the University of Yale (USA), arose from the Nuremberg trials for the war crimes of Nazism, after the Second World War.
The American researcher was interested in the fact that the defense of the accused against terrible crimes was always based on ” obedience ” to their superiors.
Milgram wanted to explore if there was something evil that was unique in the Nazis or if anyone could be able to commit terrible acts against others.
Thus, he recruited 40 American volunteers and told them that they were going to participate in an experiment on memory and learning .
He grouped them into pairs and told them that one would be the teacher and another would be the student, in what seemed like a random assignment, which was recorded in several videos.
Then they took the student to another room and the teacher asked him to put his memory to the test with a test.
The researcher then told the teacher that if the student was wrong he should punish him. That punishment was an electric shock, which varied from 50 volts to 450 volts, a maximum power that was designated as ” DANGER: severe shock “.
The instruction was that the more wrong the harder student should be the teacher’s punishment. The electric shocks were false but the teachers did not know it, and they heard complaints and pre-recorded screams of pain after applying them.
What Milgram wanted to know is to what extent the subjects would continue to increase the downloads, knowing that they would cause physical damage to the other person, before facing the investigator and refusing to comply with the order.
And its results left the scientific community stunned: 65% of the participants came to execute the maximum final discharge of 450 volts.
The main conclusion of the psychologist was that the person does not consider himself responsible for his own actions, but is considered an instrument that executes the desire of another person, in this case the researcher.
“What I learned from my experiment,” Milgram told the BBC in an archival interview, “is that you do not need a person to be evil to participate in an evil system: ordinary people can be easily integrated into systems malevolent . “
The main ethical problem of the Milgram experiment according to current standards is the extreme psychological stress that was applied on the subjects that participated.
2. The experiment of Stanford Prison ( 1971 )
This experiment, led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, aimed to investigate the psychological effect of the perception of power.
To do this, the researchers divided the young participants, who were paid to participate, into two groups.
They were randomly assigned the role of prisoner or guard and placed in an environment similar to that of a prison, in the basement of the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, in the United States.
Zimbardo told the guards that they could not use physical violence but that they had to maintain order, and that if the prisoners escaped the experiment was over. They gave them uniforms and police equipment.
The prisoners were taken to jail with their eyes covered to confuse them about their location, they were stripped naked and dressed in prison clothes. There are photographs and videos of certain moments of the experiment.
Nothing had prepared participants and investigators for what happened next: the guards began to implement authoritarian measures on the prisoners and even tortured them psychologically.
Several prisoners showed signs of psychological distress. Some prisoners revealed themselves but many passively accepted the psychological abuse of the guards and following their orders actively burdened the other prisoners who tried to stop the abuse.
The study’s own researcher, Zimbardo, who adopted the role of director of the prison, allowed the abuse to continue and admits that he lost his perspective as a scientist and psychologist.
In the end two of the prisoners abandoned the experiment. The study was supposed to last two weeks, but the brutality exhibited by the guards and the suffering of the prisoners was so intense that they had to put an end to it after six days.
This study gave a graphic illustration of how a situation or system can condition the behavior of a “good” individual.
Zimbardo interpreted that the guards acted as they did because they assumed blindly the role assigned to them, in the same way that he did as the director of the prison.
3. The experiment with the little Albert ( 1920 )
In 1920 a 9-month-old American baby was used for a series of controversial experiments. He went on to the history of psychology as “Little Albert” (Little Albert) and for much of the twentieth century his true identity and destiny were a mystery.
The experiments with little Albert, which were partially recorded on video, became a reference for the study of fear.
The results, which were published in February 1920 in the journal Journal of Experimental Psychology , have been widely cited in the history of psychology literature.
But the lack of ethical regulation of them today is eerily cruel.
The lead researcher, John B. Watson, and his assistant student, Rosalie Rayner, exposed little Albert to various “stimuli” at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Maryland, United States.
Watson wanted to prove what could condition a child to feel fear before a distinctive stimulus that normally would not cause fear, that is, generate a phobia to an emotionally stable child.
His proposal is based on classical conditioning, also called Pavlovjian conditioning, stimulus-response model or learning by associations, demonstrated for the first time by the famous Ivan Pavlov.
In this experiment, the researchers had Albert touch a monkey, a dog, a rabbit and a white laboratory rat without the baby showing any signs of fear. They also exposed him to cotton balls, fur coats and masks, among other objects.
Then the researcher exposed the child to those same animals but every time Albert touched one of them they scared him with the loud noise of a hammer hitting a steel bar.
After repeating this association between the two stimuli, when he was introduced to Albert, only the rat became very nervous, started crying and tried to crawl away.
The animal, which used to be a “neutral stimulus”, had become conditioned.
Several researchers tried to determine Albert’s true identity, but there are no conclusive studies. Some say he was the son of a nurse at the hospital or a worker who did not know they were using the baby for a study.
While Watson had talked about what could be done to remove Albert’s conditional fear, he apparently did not have time to work on his desensitization, so it is likely that the baby kept his fear of hairy things after the experiment.
Today, this type of experiment that can harm the participating subjects is totally forbidden.