Classic Psychology Experiments

6 Experiments That Shaped Psychology

The history of psychology is filled with fascinating studies and classic psychology experiments that helped change the way we think about ourselves and human behavior. Sometimes the results of these experiments were so surprising that they challenged conventional wisdom about the human mind and actions. In other cases, these experiments were also quite controversial.

Some of the most famous examples include Milgram's obedience experiment and Zimbardo's prison experiment. Explore some of these classic psychology experiments to learn more about some of the best-known research in psychology history.

Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning Experiments

Pavlov's experiment
Image: Rklawton (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The concept of classical conditioning is studied by every entry-level psychology student, so it may be surprising to learn that the man who first noted this phenomenon was not a psychologist at all.

Pavlov was actually studying the digestive systems of dogs when he noticed that his subjects began to salivate whenever they saw his lab assistant. What he soon discovered through his experiments was that certain responses could be conditioned by associating a previously neutral stimulus with a stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a response. Pavlov's experiments with dogs established classical conditioning.

The Asch Conformity Experiments

Asch experiments
Asch's experiments famously explored the power of conformity in groups.

Researchers have long been interested in the degree to which people follow or rebel against social norms. During the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments designed to demonstrate the powers of conformity in groups. The study revealed that people are surprisingly susceptible to going along with the group, even when they know the group is wrong.

In Asch's studies, students were told that they were taking a vision test and were asked to identify which of three lines was the same length as a target line. When asked alone, the students were highly accurate in their assessments. In other trials, confederate participants intentionally picked the incorrect line. As a result, many of the real participants gave the same answer as the other students, demonstrating how conformity could be both a powerful and subtle influence on human behavior.

Harlow’s Rhesus Monkey Experiments

Rhesus monkey clings to surrogate mother.
Martin Rogers/Getty Images

In a series of controversial experiments conducted in the 1960s, psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated the powerful effects of love on normal development. By showing the devastating effects of deprivation on young rhesus monkeys, Harlow revealed the importance of love for healthy childhood development. His experiments were often unethical and shockingly cruel, yet they uncovered fundamental truths that have heavily influenced our understanding of child development.

In one famous version of the experiments, infant monkeys were separated from their mothers immediately after birth and placed in an environment where they had access to either a wire monkey "mother" or a version of the faux-mother covered in a soft-terry cloth. While the wire mother provided food, the cloth mother provided only softness and comfort. Harlow found that while the infant monkeys would go to the wire mother for food, they vastly preferred the company of the soft and comforting cloth mother. The study demonstrated that maternal bonds were about much more than simply providing nourishment and that comfort and security played a major role in the formation of attachments.

Skinner's Operant Conditioning Experiments

Skinner studied how behavior can be reinforced to be repeated or weakened to be extinguished. He designed the Skinner Box where an animal, often a rodent, would be given a food pellet or an electric shock. A rat would learn that pressing a level delivered a food pellet. Or, the rat would learn not to press the lever if doing so delivered an electric shock. Then the animal may learn to associate a light or sound with being able to get the reward or avoid the punishment by pressing the lever. Further, he studied whether continuous, fixed ratio, fixed interval, variable ratio, and variable interval reinforcement led to faster response or learning.

Milgram’s Obedience Experiments

Isabelle Adam (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr

In Milgram's experiment, participants were asked to deliver electrical shocks to a "learner" whenever an incorrect answer was given. In reality, the learner was actually a confederate in the experiment who pretended to be shocked. The purpose of the experiment was to determine how far people were willing to go in order to obey the commands of an authority figure. Milgram found that 65 percent of participants were willing to deliver the maximum level of shocks despite the fact that the learner seemed to be in serious distress or even unconscious.

As you can probably imagine, Milgram's experiment is also notable for being one of the most controversial in psychology history. Many participants experienced considerable distress as a result of their participation and in many cases were never debriefed after the conclusion of the experiment. The experiment played a role in the development of ethical guidelines for the use of human participants in psychology experiments.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. Image courtesy shammer86 - shammer86

Philip Zimbardo's famous experiment cast regular students in the roles of prisoners and prison guards. While the study was originally slated to last two weeks, it had to be halted after just six days because the guards became abusive and the prisoners began to show signs of extreme stress and anxiety. Zimbardo's famous study was referred to after the abuses in Abu Ghraib came to light. Many experts believe that such group behaviors are heavily influenced by the power of the situation and the behavioral expectations placed on people cast in different roles.