Psychology -- Contribution of Psychological Experiments Philip Essay

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  • Subject: Psychology
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Psychology -- Contribution of Psychological Experiments

Philip Banyard explains how Stanley Milgram came to be involved with research regarding the Nazi slaughter of millions of people in Europe during World War II. Milgram's obedience study of course had emotional and cultural meaning for him because he is Jewish. In fact he feels blessed that even though his family roots were in Europe in proximity to where the Holocaust took place, he was born in the U.S. And hence avoided the Nazi madness. What is the value of Milgram's research experiments? That is the crux of this section -- the value of Milgram's research into why people are obedient at pivotal moments -- including moments when human lives are at stake.

What does this particular method allow psychologists to study? In the first place, having someone in a room by himself giving shocks to a person he cannot see, a person in another room, is weird, borderline bizarre. And having the person administering the shocks seeming to be giving higher and higher doses of electrical shock based on wrong answers by the subject receiving the shock is clearly a matter of testing how a person obeys orders. It's about how far a person would go in following orders, even though the person taking orders presumably knows he is perhaps hurting another person. This is about blind obedience. Being paid to be part of an experiment that seems dubious, also shows people are gullible, and some are sheep, obeying whatever command has been issued.

It turns out that the "experiment" that Milgram conducted was not real at all. But the value of the study was for the psychologist to research the way humans respond to commands, what their response is when they are asked for blind obedience. Using forty participants, and having just 35% of them refuse to "go all the way" with administering shocks, is good psychological research. What sort of conclusions does it allow psychologists to draw? In this case Milgram discovered that most people will be willing to shock others at horribly high levels simply because they were ordered to do so by an authority figure. When learning about this experiment through reading all the technical details about it, one can see why people like Adolf Eichmann got caught up in a situation where indeed he was just following orders from the ultimate authority figure in Nazi Germany, Hitler. The conclusion that can be drawn from section 4 (Replications) is that surprisingly, women were just as likely to administer shocks as men were.

"People are not blindly obedient to authority," Banyard explains on page 84, but the experiments show that "substantial numbers of people from a variety of countries will harm other people on the instructions of an authority figure" (Banyard, 84).

What are the relative merits of experiments? The merits clearly are that humans do respond to what they consider authoritative persons. Even the nurses who know better than to administer a drug based on a phone call from a doctor they had not heard of. When twenty-one of twenty-two registered nurses follow the instructions to administer a drug they are not familiar with, from a doctor they never heard of -- that is frankly shocking.

Why do it this way? Why conduct experiments that are basically fake, but entail potentially serious human actions that may harm others? One could easily question ethics involved in the production of an experiment that potentially could hurt an innocent participant. Milgram defends the ethical aspects of his strategy -- which certainly caused a significant degree of trauma and stress for some participants -- saying, "Relatively few subjects experienced greater tension than a nail-biting patron at a good Hitchcock thriller" (Banyard, 81). A year after this series of experiments were conducted, and Milgram interviewed the participants (to determine if there was any "long-term harm") and 84% said they were glad they participated. The very fact that Milgram had a psychiatrist examine the participants -- to see if they showed signs of "long-term harm" -- indicates that Milgram knew he was playing games with people's emotional and psychological health. It raises the question about the ethical nature of these experiments. It in fact raises serious questions about the efficacy and the ethical implications of putting people through those kinds of harrowing emotional / psychological experiments just to prove a point that perhaps psychologists already are aware of.

Chapter 4

Frederick Toates explains at the outset of Chapter 4 that some behaviors take the form they take due to the consequences surrounding it. Hence, the investigation in this chapter relates to figuring out behavioral changes vis-a-vis the consequences that initiated the behavior change. B.F. Skinner of course is a giant in the field of psychology. And Ivan Pavlov's experiments are epic and part of the literature in any psychology class. The point of his experiment with dogs -- the triggering of salivation based on a tone emitted -- is to observe the change of behavior.

What Pavlov launched with his experiments was what Toates calls "classical conditioning" which involved a change of behavior that Toates described as "stimulus-response psychology" (162).

There is seemingly no ethical question surrounding Pavlov's experiments, but for John Watson, the question -- why do it this way? -- comes into play. Why scare an infant boy by banging on metal behind his head to prove that his behavior will change? Any mother in any one of a hundred thousand communities could tell you that a child's behavior will change with that kind of negative stimulus.

What are the relative merits of experiments? There are nearly always merits to psychological experiments, but in this case, Watson proved that Albert, the infant, connected the rat to the noise and moved a way, a change of behavior to be sure but to what end? What sort of conclusion can be drawn from this experiment? In this case it's pretty sketchy. But in the case of Edward Thorndike, his experiment can be said to have more value, at least in the opinion of this writer, given that the cat showed cognitive abilities in escaping from the box. There was clearly a psychologically valuable link between "…the stimulus of the latch and the response of manipulation of the latch" (Toates, 161). As the cat became more familiar with the game -- we give you food if you can get out of this box -- the time of release became shorter.

More profound in terms of its application to psychological research was the contribution of Skinner. He was emphatic that behaviorism should be based strictly on "observable data." In his experiments (rats running through mazes) it was all about the fact that behavior was instrumental -- which is deeper than saying the rat was desperately hungry and eventually found his way to food. What is also pertinent in this experiment is the experience that the rat needed to go through to define his behavior. The rat shows cognitive abilities, like the cat did earlier in the paper.

Psychologists learn from this experiment that rats adjust and learn in two ways, which is not that different from how humans learn (and that is likely one of the main points). A project that ends up delivering a specific process -- "behavior shaping" -- that contributes to psychological knowledge and does not have troubling ethical issues associated with it is a worthy experiment. Skinner's assertion that free will does not account for human behavior is among his major contributions to the field. Skinner's "green manifesto" was so far ahead of his time that alert students today can see -- notwithstanding Spiro Agnew's pronouncement that Skinner was dangerous to the American way -- that everything he did is worthy of close study.

Toates is precisely correct when he points out that using the Skinnerian perspective, just telling American citizens to consume less and recycle more is "relatively ineffective." And yet, on page 185 Toates points out that changing behavior on a global scale is a far, far different proposition than the rat in the Skinner box changing his behavior. His is a good idea, vis-a-vis reducing pollution, but the findings from his Skinner box do not extrapolate easily into today's realities. Environmental change, though, needs to be promoted based on the wisdom and vision Skinner demonstrated in the 1940s, notwithstanding the difficulty leaders today would have linking environment needs with Skinner's experiments and theories.

Chapter 8

Helen Edgar and Graham Edgar present "The psychology of attention" on page 332, a close look at, among other pathfinders, Donald Broadbent and his work as a cognitive psychologist. The problem that initially got Broadbent's attention was the design of aircraft used in WWII. He wanted to know, intuitively after being trained as a pilot, why not design aircraft to fit the needs of the pilot, rather than having the pilot make whatever adjustments are needed after the fact? And with that curiosity -- gleaned from wartime technologies -- Broadbent was inspired to experiment.…

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