Saturday, April 4, 2015

Some Odd Experiments in Social Psychology

A friend of mine, Ron Riggio, recently posted a list of the oddest-ever experiments in psychology. A couple of them are ones I regularly discuss in my Social Psychology course, and one in particular (what Ron dubs The Urinal Study) makes its way into any conversation I and my students have regarding research ethics in my methodology courses:
This study looked at how the presence of other people in a men’s bathroom caused negative arousal, and affected performance—of urination! The dependent measure in this study was the time that it took for the stream of urine to begin flowing. The independent (manipulated) variable was the presence or absence of another person at the adjacent urinal. How did the researchers measure onset of urination? An observer was stationed in a nearby stall with a periscope so that he could observe the onset of urine flow! The study was designed to see how invasion of personal space affected people, but it sounds like a major invasion of privacy itself.
There are a couple other candidates for oddest-ever experiment in my particular field. One I've briefly mentioned before. That would be the Cockroach Experiment by Bob Zajonc. The experiment examined social facilitation effects in, you guessed it, cockroaches. There were two independent variables. As I understand it, cockroaches are biologically prepared to run down simple paths to move from light to dark spaces. So, one independent variable was the type of maze the cockroaches were required to navigate. Some cockroaches ran a simple maze and others ran a complex maze. The other independent variable was the presence or absence of other cockroaches. In one condition, cockroaches ran through their maze without any other cockroaches present. In the other condition, cockroaches ran through their maze with other roaches present in an audience box. The dependent variable was the time necessary for the cockroaches to complete the maze. In the simple maze condition, cockroaches completed the maze faster when there were other cockroaches present, thus providing evidence of a social facilitation effect. This is always one of my favorite experiments to discuss, simply because students find it so difficult to believe that such complex social phenomena can be found in such a simple animal.

I think the Paralysis Experiment would also make for a good candidate for oddest-ever experiment, not the least because it placed the participants under such extreme distress. In fact, it usually makes my list of most ethically challenged experiments. Campbell, Sanderson, and Laverty (1964) wanted to demonstrate that a conditioned fear response to a previously neutral stimulus could be conditioned in a single trial. In order to accomplish this feat, the authors gave their participants a drug that introduced temporarily paralysis from the neck down and caused them to lose the ability to breathe on their own (again, temporarily). This horrifying experience was paired with the sound of a tone. When the participants recovered from their paralysis, they were exposed to the tone by itself. The authors found that the participants showed a pronounced fear response simply to hearing the tone. Not only was this a rather strong effect, it did not extinguish over time. In fact, the emotional response to the tone increased in strength over time. The experiment was one that arguably created a very mild form of PTSD in its research participants. Obviously, this is not one that would pass muster with an IRB nowadays, and for good reason.

I am sure that there are a few others that would be good candidates for odd social psychology experiments, but the above trio would top my list.


Campbell, D., Sanderson, R. E., & Laverty, S. G. (1964). Characteristics of a conditioned response in human subjects during extinction trials following a single traumatic conditioning trial.
Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 68, 627-639.

Middlemist, R., Knowles, E., & Matter, C. (1976). Personal space invasions in the lavatory: suggestive evidence for arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 541-546.

Zajonc, R. B., Heingartner, A., & Herman, E. M. (1969). Social enhancement and impairment of performance in the cockroach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 83-92.

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