The 7 All-Time Most Controversial Psychological Experiments

Psychology is a practice we all know and love and something many of us is familiar with throughout our day-to-day lives. However, all this information had to come from somewhere.

Many of the most famous discoveries and ways we found this information come from sometimes unbelievably controversial studies. Today, we’re deep-diving into the most intense.

In this guide, you’ll discover the seven most controversial Psychology experiments and what they’ve taught us if anything. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Kickstarting our list, the most controversial and well-known study on the list is The Stanford Prison Experiment. Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted this experiment in 1971 to observe what would happen when you put good people in bad situations.

He took 24 male students and split them into two groups: prisoners and prison guards. The ‘prisoners’ were then stripped of their clothes and given smocks, while the ‘guards’ were given uniforms and nightsticks.

The study was intended to last for two weeks but ended up shutting down after just six days due to the horrific conditions. The ‘prisoners’ were constantly harassed and abused by the ‘guards.’ Some even began to show signs of mental breakdowns due to the psychological and physical abuse.

This study is still controversial today, with many people arguing that the participants should never have been put in such a position in the first place. However, it’s undeniable that it has helped shape our understanding of how power can affect people’s behavior.

The Priming Experiment (Elderly Words Provoke Walking Slow)

Next on our list is a study conducted in 1998 by John Bargh. This experiment is often known as the ‘elderly words provoke walking slow’ study, and it aimed to observe how subliminal messaging can affect behavior.

They had two groups of people complete a word association task to do this. One group was given words related to the elderly (for example, ‘wrinkled,’ ‘grey,’ and ‘bingo’), while they gave others neutral words.

The participants were then asked to walk down a hallway, with the researchers timing how long it took them to reach the end. Unsurprisingly, those in the first group who had been exposed to words related to the elderly walked down the hall significantly slower than those in the second group.

This study was controversial at the time as it called into question just how much control we have over our behavior. At the time, many people were worried that if advertisers and others could influence our behavior in such a way, we would no longer be able to make our own decisions.

However, the main reason this was so controversial was that it was later debunked. A different lab led by Stephane Doyen could not produce the same results.

The original researcher, John Bargh, became increasingly angry with how he reacted, and the controversy surrounding this experiment has only increased over the years.

While there’s a lot of hearsay and rumors, social priming is most certainly a controversial phenomenon that can have dangerous consequences. Bargh’s original experiment was flawed, inconsistent, lacked thoroughness, biased, and subject to equipment errors.

Even to this day, it’s still unclear exactly how much influence subliminal messaging can have on our behavior. 

The Milgram Experiment

Another well-known and controversial experiment is the Milgram experiment conducted in 1961 by Stanley Milgram. This study observed how far people would go in obeying an authority figure, even if it meant harming another person.

Not coincidently, this experiment took place three months after the trial of Adolf Eichmann had started in Jerusalem. 

This iconic experiment attempted to break down the effects of genocide from a psychological standpoint and see whether Eichmann and others like him were ‘following orders’ during the Holocaust or were evil beings.

He recruited participants and told them that they were taking part in a study about memory and learning. They were then paired with another participant, who was an actor, and the test subjects were told to shock them whenever they got an answer wrong.

The shocks were fake, but the actors pretended that they were in pain. Even pre-recorded electrical shock sounds were played through the room to ensure the shock seemed authentic.

The actors were strapped to the chair, and the participant was told that this was to ensure the actors could not leave, no matter how bad it got. The participants were also given a real electric shock before the test to give them an idea of what the actors would be going through.

And so the test commenced.

The test was simple. Lists of pairs of words were given and recalled from the participant and the actor. The participant would then provide a list of four possible answers, and the actor would use a button to identify which sequence of words was correct.

If they were wrong, they would receive an electric shock, and the voltage would be turned up by 15 volts, with the max being 450 volts.

Of course, as the voltage was increased, the actors would pretend to be in more pain. In later versions of the experiment, some actors would even beg for mercy or plead that they had a heart condition. But still, the shocks continued.

Whenever the participant started to show signs that they wanted to stop the experiment, or at least not carry on, the experimenters replied with these statements, in this order of severity.

  1. Please continue or Please go on.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice; you must go on.

If the first statement didn’t work, they would move on to the next. The experiment would stop if the participant didn’t carry on after the fourth prompt.

As the test was run, 65% of the participants made it to the final 450-volt mark, all participants making it to at least the 300-volt mark, showcasing that people will go to great lengths to obey authority figures.

This study was controversial because it showed just how easily people could be coerced into harming others, even if they don’t want to. It also raised ethical concerns about the use of deception in research.

Despite these concerns, the Milgram experiment is still considered to be an essential study, as it provides insight into how people respond to authority figures.

The ‘Little Albert’ Experiment

One of the most controversial psychological experiments of all time is the ‘Little Albert’ experiment, which was conducted by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner in 1920. This study aimed to observe how fear could be conditioned in a child.

To do this, they used a nine-month-old boy who was called Albert. He was exposed to several animals, including a rat, a rabbit, and a dog. Each time he saw them, he was given a small shock.

After some time, Albert began to show signs of fear whenever he saw any of the animals, even if he wasn’t shocked. This showed that fear can be conditioned in children and that it doesn’t just happen naturally.

The ‘Little Albert’ experiment was controversial because it showed how easy it is to manipulate a child’s emotions. It also raised ethical concerns about the use of animals in research.

Despite these concerns, the ‘Little Albert’ experiment is still considered to be an important study, as it provides insight into how fear is learned, enabling us to understand better and treat anxiety disorders.

The Facebook Emotion Experiment

One of the most recent and controversial psychological experiments is the Facebook emotion experiment, which was conducted by a team of researchers from Cornell University in 2014. This study aimed to observe how social media can affect our emotions.

To do this, they manipulated the news feeds of over 700,000 Facebook users, showing some users positive content and others negative content. They then monitored how these users responded emotionally.

The study results showed that those who were exposed to positive content were more likely to post positive content themselves, and vice versa for those who were exposed to negative content.

This study was controversial because it showed that social media could really impact our emotions. It also raised ethical concerns about the manipulation of people’s news feeds.

Despite these concerns, the Facebook emotion experiment is still considered to be an important study, as it provides insight into how social media can affect our moods and behaviors.

You can start to see how these controversial psychological experiments have shaped our understanding of the human mind. While they may have raised some ethical concerns, they are still essential studies that provide valuable insights into how we think and behave.

Operation Midnight Climax

Back in the 1950s, the CIA ran what was known as ‘Operation Midnight Climax’ under what was found out to be the highly controversial MKULTRA program that was infamous for carrying out mind control experiments on unwitting citizens.

Under this program, the CIA would use prostitutes to lure men back to safe houses in New York and San Francisco, where they would be drugged without their knowledge (usually slipping them into drinks) and observed through one-way mirrors.

Such drugs included illegal chemicals, such as LSD.

Over the decade that this program was run, the government was provided with information on how mind-altering drugs and narcotics affected the human mind and what uses they could have, as well as developing more capable surveillance equipment, and there are even reports of sexual blackmail taking place.

However, the operation was reportedly shut down in 1965, though some say it continued unofficially under different names.

The Monster Study

In concluding our list, we have one of the most traumatic and controversial studies ever, which infamously became known as The Monster Study of 1939.

It started with two researchers, Wendall Johnson and Mary Tudor, who were deep-diving into how the process and outcomes of positive reinforcement work. Tudor was explicitly interested in how stuttering could be lessened or even cured by providing positive reinforcement to those who spoke without any issues.

Sounds reasonable, for now.

To figure this out, Wendall and Johnson took a group of 22 orphaned children between six and nine who had no history of speech problems and divided them into two groups.

The first group was constantly bombarded with positive feedback and praise for how excellent and fluent their speech was, regardless of what their speech was like.

However, the second group was treated a little differently. They would receive negative feedback and be punished, regardless of the fluency of their speech.

Things got so bad for this group that one girl even ran away from the orphanage where this was taking place, as reported by the New York Times at the time.

If you put yourself in that position and imagine what life must have been like as a six-year-old going through such trauma and you have no understanding of why you’ll be quick to see just how cruel and controversial this experiment was. These children carried that trauma with them for the rest of their lives.

Controversial Psychological Experiments.

There you have it, the seven most controversial psychological experiments. While they may have raised some ethical concerns, they are still essential studies that provide valuable insights into how we think and behave. What do you think about these experiments? Let us know in the comments below.

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