Experiment: Stanford Prison

A sign that reads "Stanford County Prison" and a guard

A Mighty Guard

The Purpose:

To investigate the environmental influence on behavior. Phillip Zimbardo wanted to see how readily individuals would conform to their roles.

The Participants: 

24 undergraduate males were selected out of a group of 70 volunteers to take part in the study. They volunteered to be part of a two week study, for $15 a day. They understood that they would be randomly selected to role-play as either a prisoner or a guard. To make the experiment more realistic, those who were randomly selected to be prisoners were arrested at their homes without warning- in front of their family and neighbors. They were taken to a police station where they were treated like any other

Prisoners behind bars

A clear barrier between guard and prisoners

criminal (fingerprinted, photographed etc). They were eventually escorted to a basement in Stanford University that was set up as a prison.

The Study:

There were three 6ft X 9ft cells held 3 prisoners each where each would sleep on a cot. There was a sm

all closet/room for solitary confinement and small space for they called ‘the yard’. The guards rotated in 8-hour shifts while the prisoners stayed confined for the duration of the study. At first, the prisoners did not take the guards seriously. They were mocking them until they realized the guards were serious about their authority. To gain control, the guards would have the prisoners do physical exercises, such as push ups. On the second day, the prisoners vented their frustration by throwing a riot. They rebelled by taking off their prison uniforms and pushing their cots up against the cell doors. The guards were furious and called for backup.

Once the guards were able to get into the cells, they stripped the inmates naked, tore apart the beds and the cell, and put the prisoners who had started the rebellion in solitary confinement. As all nine guards could not be on duty at once, they began rewarding the prisoners for good behavior. The prisoners who had not been involved in starting the riot were allowed to lie in their beds, wash themselves and brush their teeth and eat while those who had started the riot were not allowed to. The guards continued to use tormenting tactics to break up the prisoners relations with each other to avoid further organized resistance. In the case with one prisoner, who was a smoker, the guards were able to control his behavior because they decided when and if he was allowed to smoke.Less than two full days into the experiment, one inmate began suffering from depression, uncontrolled rage, crying and other mental dysfunctions. The prisoner was eventually released after screaming and acting unstable in front of the other inmates. This prisoner was replaced with one of the alternates (Wikipedia).

Even going to the bathroom was considered a privilege, for if you acted out you had to defecate and urinate in a bucket. One of the key factors that lead to the dehumanization and breakdown of the prisoners was that the guards did not refer to them by name, but by their designated prison number. Being stripped of your name within an environment like that had damaging affects. On the third day of the experiment, they even allowed the prisoners parents to come in for a visitation. However, the visitation was heavily monitored by the guards and Zimbardo himself even told their families everything was splendid.

Zimbardo, deeming himself the “prison ward”, let the study go on even though he was witnessing this abuse. From the urge of graduate student Christina Mas, Zimbardo eventually ended the study prematurely– after 6 days. He was noted saying: “Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously I was not among that noble class” (About Psychology).


From their uniforms to the environment, everything played a role in changing the participants behavior. Remember: all participants were mentally and physically stable and were randomly selected for each part. This goes to show you how powerful the situation can be. Think of how relevant this is today. Notice how confident cops are when their in uniform? It gives you sense of entitlement, superiority – even if you’re not. Just the clothing alone has a psychological affect on you. I highly recommend watching the YouTube clip of the experiment. It’s captivating and disturbing at the same time.


Myth: Polygraph tests are completely reliable

Truth and Lies

Can you find the lies?

Another myth roaming around out there is that a polygraph, or lie detector, test is a completely accurate way to detect if someone is dishonest. Although the data from a polygraph test can shed light on some truth and does prove itself to be useful, it has it’s faults. Its not 100% accurate; all possibilities should be taken into account. There are some factors you need to consider that may alter the results:

1. For starters, the whole concept of a polygraph test is to measure the blood pressure, pulse, respiration and skin conductivity while the subject is asked a series of questions. If you are able to control or mask your reactions at key moments of the tests you may be able to throw the results off enough to have an inconclusive result.

An underlying problem is theoretical: There is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception. An honest person may be nervous when answering truthfully and a dishonest person may be non-anxious. (APA)

2. Take another perspective: It could be that the very presence of this lie-detector machine tricks people into being more honest.

A particular problem is that polygraph research has not separated placebo-like effects (the subject’s belief in the efficacy of the procedure) from the actual relationship between deception and their physiological responses. One reason that polygraph tests may appear to be accurate is that subjects who believe that the test works and that they can be detected may confess or will be very anxious when questioned. If this view is correct, the lie detector might be better called a fear detector. (APA)

person strapped to lie detector machine

Lie detector test in process

3. Take a look at Aldrich Ames, who was part of the Soviet counter-espionage program for the CIA but was actually a Soviet spy. When the CIA started to realize there was was a mole in the agency, it took them a little while to hone in on Ames. Eventually, they put him through a polygraph test where his answers were deceptive, but passed…twice!

Ames was initially “terrified” at the prospect of taking the test, but he was advised by the KGB “to just relax”….[he] received the simple instruction to: “Get a good night’s sleep, and rest, and go into the test rested and relaxed. Be nice to the polygraph examiner, develop a rapport, and be cooperative and try to maintain your calm.Additionally, Ames said, “`There’s no special magic…Confidence is what does it. Confidence and a friendly relationship with the examiner… rapport, where you smile and you make him think that you like him.  (Wikipedia)

The National Academy of Sciences conducted a study in 2003 where they examined 57 polygraph studies.

In populations of examinees such as those represented in the polygraph research literature, untrained in countermeasures, specific-incident polygraph tests can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance, though well below perfection….polygraph tests had too high a margin of error to be genuinely informative. (The Straight Dope)

All in all, the polygraph test is not perfect, it has its pitfalls. People have deceived their way to a passing grade. Although it has proved is use over the years, it’s not something we should rely on…yet. Technology is growing everyday- who knows what the future polygraph tests will have in store!

Experiment: Little Albert

Baby crying next to a white rat


The Little Albert experiment, although famous and important, would never have been approved if the idea was presented today. I’m not going to get into the whole ethical debate this experiment inevitably elicits. However, at the end of this post there is a nifty poll where you can decide if this study was ethical or not.

It all started in 1920 when John  B. Watson wanted to prove that fear was a learned behavior….what better way to test this than to terrify a child?

The Study

Little Albert was 9 months old and was the son of an employee of Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She also lived on campus and worked as a wet nurse (i.e., a caregiver who breast feeds another woman’s child) at the hospital. He was chosen for one main reason: he was emotionally stable. Experimenters exposed Little Albert to a myriad of things he had never experienced before to gather a baseline of his reactions. Some of the neutral things he was presented with was a white rabbit, a rat, a dog, a monkey, masks with and without hair, cotton wool and burning newspapers; he showed no fear (Wikipedia). Then the trials began. The experimenters placed Little Albert on a mattress. Then, they placed the white rat next to him. At first, he was curious and reached out to touch it. But, as soon as the infant touched the rat, the experimenters would make an obnoxiously loud sound by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer. Like a normal human, Little Albert was startled and, like a normal baby, he cried. In scientific terms, the child’s fear-based reaction to the loud noise was an unconditioned response. Nobody conditioned or forced the child to be frightened by the loud noise. The experimenters repeated this process several times.

The Result

Flow chart of Little Alberts condtion

(click picture to magnify)

As the experiment went on, Little Albert started to show signs of fear and anxiety by just seeing the rat in the room. He would cry, try to move away and try to not look at the animal in front of him. Little Albert, as psychologists hoped, had associated his fear response with the rat. The once neutral stimulus was associated with the unconditioned response (i.e.,fear) by being repeatedly exposed to the unconditioned stimulus (i.e., the loud noise). The rat now becomes a conditioned stimulus that elicits a conditioned response of fear. Check out the flow chart to your right. It’s a great chart of experiment from start to finish.

Watson had intentions of trying to reverse these effects by presenting positive stimuli with the white rat, but he did not have time. Little Albert was leaving.

An important finding that this study shines light on is that nurture takes a large part of who we are. Since fear can be learned, this means that biology isn’t 100% everything. Your environment, your experiences, impact the way you act, feel and think.

Although I wont be jumping into the ethical debate of this study, that doesn’t mean you can’t– take the poll!

Myth: We only use 10% of our brain

Picture of a brain where only 10% is lit up.

10% of brain

This is a common myth you will hear frequently– we only use 10% of our brain at a given time. Take a look at the picture above– imagine only using that small portion of your brain for literally everything  you do in your day? Here are some of reasons that debunk this myth:

Broca and Wernicke's area of the brain

 Broca and Wernicke’s area of the brain

1. If we only use 10% of our brains, that means 90% of our brain is inactive, is   useless. Now, think of brain damage. There is almost no area of your brain that will not dramatically effect you if it’s damaged. Take Broca and Wernicke’s area of the brain (see picture to your right), for example. They’re relatively small compared to the rest. If you damage Broca’s area you’ll have difficulty producing speech and writing. If you damage Wernicke’s area you’ll difficulty comprehending  speech (AMA). And to think– these areas are small, yet the influence so large.

2. Brain scans shine a light on the truth as well. Scans of the brain show that our brains are always active — no matter what we are doing. Even when we are sleeping all parts of our brain show some level activity. MythBusters even tested this out too. They used an fMRI to scan the brain of someone attempting a complicated mental task. Their findings: well of 10% of the brain was active at once (Wikipedia). There is no such thing as one part of our brain temporarily not functioning.

“Brain scans have shown that no matter what we’re doing, our brains are always active. Some areas are more active at any one time than others, but unless we have brain damage, there is no one part of the brain that is absolutely not functioning. Here’s an example. If you’re sitting at a table and eating a sandwich, you’re not actively using your feet. You’re concentrating on bringing the sandwich to your mouth, chewing and swallowing it. But that doesn’t mean that your feet aren’t working — there’s still activity in them, such as blood flow, even when you’re not actually moving them.” –How Stuff Works

3. If we don’t use it, we loose it. In other words, if brain cells are continually not being used, they will degenerate. If 90% of the brain is inactive, there would be a whole lot of degeneration- which is not the case.

So, as it turns out, we do not use 10% of our brains – we use all of it! This also means there isn’t some percentage of unused brain space that we can tap into to increase our intelligence. We’ll have to find another way to take over the world.

Experiment: Asch Conformity


Experimenter and his board

 To give this blog a visual, let’s pretend the dude in the picture is Solomon Asch. He was a curious man. He wanted to know how many people it took for a person to conform. In other words, he wanted to see how an individual’s opinions were influenced by the majority (Wikipedia). To test this, he conducted an experiment using lines. Like the picture to your left displays, the experimenter would ask the group of students which of the 3 lines- A, B, or C – were of equal length to line X.


One real participant, several confederates. A confederate is an actor, a person who knows the purpose of the study and is playing along as a real participant.

The Study:

There are many variations to Asch’s conformity study, all with slight tweaks here and there to see if the outcome would differ. Each experiment is interesting in its own right, but for now I’ll talk about his main experiment. The participants all sat in a row facing the board. In the first and second round all participants stated the correct answer. It is in trial three where confederates were to purposely and unanimously give the wrong answer. Throughout the trials, the confederates would occasionally state the wrong answers as to omit the possibility the subject will catch on to the experiment.


The results of the one hundred and twenty three subjects who were placed in the minority position proved that publicly stating an answer and being in the minority bracket will lead to conformity (Asch, 1955). In the experiment I described above, the subjects conformed to the majority’s answer 36.8% of the time.

Asch also tested to see how many people it took for the single subject to conform. When the subject was in the room with only one confederate, their answer swayed a little but not drastically; for the most part, he answered as an individual. When the ratio of confederates to subject was 2 to 1, the percentage of conformity increased dramatically; 13.6 % of the time the subject would sway towards the majority’s decision. With the ratio of three to one, conformity occurred 31.8% of the time. This is where the conformity pressure reaches a plateau, for there was no substantial jump in conformity with any ratio beyond three to one.

Of course, after every experiment that involves some sort of “trickery”, you have to debrief, or take each participation aside, and tell them what was really going on. It’s unethical to just go back to the lab after you attain your data- you can’t leave these poor people in the dark! Anyway, most of them thought the confederates had to be right because they were the majority and doubted their abilities completely. Another interesting finding is that all of the subjects who conformed to the group consensus underestimated the frequency of their conformity. We can easily segue into how awful we can be at introspection, but we’ll leave that for another post.

Asch’s conformity test is a classic and is worth reading more into. I also suggest watching a short YouTube video of the experiment. I find it hilarious (…and by hilarious I mean educational, of course). Enjoy the confusion and conformity.

Don’t believe everything you read!

Picture of the word 'myths' being lifted off a piece of paper to reveal the word 'truths'

Don’t believe everything you read!

One of the most annoying things people can do in a conversation is tell me psychology is all “common sense” in an almighty, omniscience tone while blurting out a sentence they read in a magazine. Lots of people talk and talk and talk without saying anything with substance, without any actual knowledge or evidence to give them credibility to their opinion– I beg of you, do not be that guy! I will be the first to admit: I’m not a super genius, I do not…will not know everything. The only thing I can do to keep from word vomiting nonsense I heard from so-and-so is to research (even if it’s just a little).

I’ll be adding common psychology myths to this blog in due time.