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There is so much about the human mind that science has yet to understand and explain. In an attempt to better understand the often odd human psyche, psychologists throughout the years have performed some experiments that range from ethically questionable to downright dangerous. Here are a few of the most controversial psychology experiments that ended with disturbing results …

The Sanford Prison Experiment


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In 1971, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo wanted to test how people conform to social roles. Using a group of male college students from Stanford University, he developed the “Prison Experiment”. Meant to last two weeks, the prison experiment randomly chose some students to be mock prisoners and others to be mock guards of the simulated prison. He had the chosen “prisoners” arrested outside their own homes without telling them it was part of the experiment. The results were disturbing — the “guards” took full advantage of their all-powerful roles, acting in malicious, vindictive, and violently towards the “prisoners”. The “prisoners” were also immersed in their roles as helpless and tortured captives who had to obey every order the “guards” gave them. The experiment had to be ended after just six days because of the escalating violence.

The Marshmallow Experiment

 

The “Marshmallow Experiment” sought to test the effects of delayed gratification. In the experiment, young children were brought into private rooms and sat down in front of a bowl of marshmallows. Researchers then offered the children a deal: they could have one marshmallow right then, or they could wait 15 minutes and have two marshmallows. Some children immediately went for the one-marshmallow deal, unable to contain themselves. Other kids tried to stop themselves from giving into temptation, but eventually did so after a few minutes. A few strong-willed kids were actually able to wait the entire time and received their two-marshmallow reward.

The most fascinating part of this experiment was that researchers followed each of the children for more than 40 years periodically throughout their lives, and found some interesting and sad results — the group who waited patiently for the second marshmallow succeeded in whatever capacity they were measuring at the time. The children who did not wait, however, were more likely to abuse drugs and have a harder time finding and keeping a job. Thus, the experiment proved being able to delay one’s gratification has a significant impact in one’s success in life.

The Milgram Experiment


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Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram wanted to test people’s obedience to authority figures in an effort to better understand how Nazi soldiers were able to carry out their heinous acts during the Holocaust. In his experiment, he told his subjects they were to administer an electric-shock to a man who was being asked questions to test his memory. When the man got an answer wrong, the subjects were told by an authoritative figure to shock the man. The shocks escalated in intensity, and the man would plead for them to stop. The subjects were not aware that the man being shocked was just an actor or that shocks were fake. Still, most subjects continued to obey the authoritative figure’s orders, despite the man begging for mercy. The authoritative figure would say things like, “The experiment requires that you continue” or “You have no other choice, you must go on”. The fact that the subjects continually obeyed the commands of the authoritative figure, even when the man begged for mercy, is definitely a disturbing result of this 1960s experiment.

The Blue Eyes vs. Brown Eyes Experiment


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An Iowa teacher named Jane Elliott decided to teach her students a lesson in racism in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. One day, she explained to her students (without telling them it was an experiment), that blue-eyed (or light-eyed) children were going to be getting more privileges in the class. They were given extra recess time, a second helping of food at lunch, and were allowed to sit at the front of the classroom and participate in class discussions. Brown-eyed children were subsequently forced to sit at the back of the class and were more severely punished for the same type of behavior that blue-eyed children got away with throughout the day. By the end of the day, the blue-eyed children were taunting the brown-eyed children to no end. Interestingly, blue-eyed students who had struggled to do well on class assignments before the special treatment were already showing improved performance in their schoolwork by the end of the day, whereas the previously successful brown-eyed students showed signs of struggling with their work after being treated as less-than their blue-eyed counterparts. The next day, Mrs. Elliott reversed the exercise, with the brown-eyed kids getting the privileges. They didn’t taunt their blue-eyed classmates quite as viciously, most likely because they had experienced the taunting day before. The experiment ended after the second day and all of the children cried and expressed that they had, to an extent, learned what racism felt like. While it’s disturbing that the students who were given privileges taunted those who were not, at least this experiment had a positive result and taught the students a very valuable lesson in racism and empathy.

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