5 Psychological Experiments That Explain the Modern World
The world is a confusing place. People do things that don’t make any sense, think things that aren’t supported by facts, endure things they do not need to endure, and viciously attack those who try to bring these things to their attention.
If you’ve ever wondered why, you’ve come to the right place.
Any casual reader of the alternate-media landscape will eventually come up with a reference to Stanley Milgram, or Philip Zimbardo, the “Asch Experiment” or maybe all three.
“Cognitive Dissonance”, “Diffusion of Responsibility”, and “learned helplessness” are phrases that regularly do the rounds, but where do they come from and what they mean?
Well, here are the important psycho-social experiments that teach us about the way people think; but more than that, they actually explain how our modern world works and just how we got into this mess.
1. The Milgram Experiment
The Experiment: Let’s start with the most famous. Beginning in 1963, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments now referred to as the Milgram Obedience Experiments.
The setting is simple, Subject A is told to conduct a memory test on Subject B, and administer electric shocks when he makes mistakes. Of course, Subject B does not exist, and the electric shocks are not real. Instead, actors would cry, ask for help or pretend to be unconscious, all the while Subject A would be encouraged to carry on administering the shocks.
The vast majority of subjects carried on with the test and gave the shocks, despite the distress of “Subject B”.
The Conclusion: In his paper on this experiment Stanley Milgram coined the term “diffusion of responsibility”, describing the psychological process by which a person can excuse or justify doing harm to someone if they believe it’s not really their fault, they won’t be held accountable, or they do not have a choice.
The Application: Almost literally endless. All institutions can use this phenomenon to pressure people into acting against their own moral code. The army, the police, hospital staff – wherever there is a hierarchy or perceived authority, people will fall victim to the diffusion of their own responsibility.
NOTE: They made a decent film about Milgram, and the backlash his experiments caused called Experimenter. In recent years there has been a major pushback on this experiment, with articles in the MSM attacking the findings and methodology and new “researchers” claiming “it does not prove what you think it does.”
2. The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Experiment: Only slightly less famous than Milgram’s work is Philip Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment, carried out at Stanford University in 1971. The experiment set up a mock-prison for a week, with one group of subjects designated “guards” and the other “prisoners”.
Both sides were provided uniforms, and prisoners were given a number. The guards were ordered to only ever address prisoners by their number, not their name.
There were a number of other rules and procedures, detailed here.
In brief, over the course of the week, guards became increasingly sadistic, dealing out punishments to disobedient prisoners and rewarding “good prisoners” in order to try and divide them. Many of the prisoners simply took the abuse, and in-fighting began between “trouble makers” and “good prisoners”.
Though technically not an “experiment” in the purest sense (there was no hypothesis to test, and no control group), and perhaps impacted by “demand characteristics”, the study does reveal interesting patterns of behaviour in its subjects.
The Conclusion: Prison guards became sadistic. Prisoners became obedient. All this despite no real laws being broken, no real legal authority, and no real requirement to stay. If you give people power and dehumanise those below them, they will become sadistic. If you put people in prison they will act like they are in prison.
In short, people will act the way they are treated.
The Application: Again, endless. We’ve seen it all through Covid, if you start treating people a certain way, the majority will go along with it and blame the minority who refuse to cooperate. Meanwhile, police forces around the world were suddenly granted new powers, and promptly abused them because the maskless and unvaxxed had been dehumanised in their eyes. Those reactions were engineered, not accidental.
3. The Asch Experiment
The Experiment: Another experiment in conformity, not as brutal as Milgram or Zimbardo, but perhaps more unsettling in its findings.
First conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s, the setup is a simple one. You put together a panel of subjects, one real subject and a handful of fake subjects.
One by one the subjects are asked a series of multiple-choice questions to which the answer is always obvious, and all the fake subjects will get every answer wrong. The question is whether or not the real subject will maintain his own correct answer, or begin to conform with the group.
The Conclusion: While most people maintained their right answers, the “error rate” in the experiment group was 37% versus less than 1% in the control group. Meaning 36% of subjects eventually began to change their answers to align with the consensus, even though they knew they were wrong.
Around one-third of people will either pretend to change their minds for the sake of conformity or, more alarmingly, will actually alter their beliefs if they find themselves in the minority.
The Application: Staged or invented polls, falsified vote counts in elections, bot accounts on social media, astroturfing campaigns. Media headlines proclaiming “everyone knows X” or “only 1% of people think Y”.
There are a great many tools you can use in order to create the impression of a fake “consensus”, a manufactured “majority”.
NOTE: The experiment has been done a million times in dozens of variations, but perhaps the most interesting finding is that putting just one other person in the panel who agrees with the test subject seemed to reduce conformity by 87%. Essentially, people hate being a lone voice but will tolerate being in the minority if they have some support. Good to know.
4. Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Experiment
The Experiment: The least well-known experiment on the list, but in some ways the most fascinating. In 1954 Leon Festinger created an experiment to evaluate the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, his setup was again quite simple.
A subject is given a repetitive and dull physical task to do (originally turning wooden pegs, but other variations use other tasks).
After the task is complete, the subject is instruced to go and prepare the next subject (actually a lab assistant) for the task, by lying and telling him/her how interesting the task was.
It’s at this point the subjects are divided into two groups, one group is offered $20 to lie, the other only $1.
This is the real experiment.
The Conclusion: After lying to the fake subjects, and being paid their money, the real subjects take part in a post-experiment interview and record their genuine thoughts on the task.
Interestingly, the 20-dollar group generally told the truth, that they found the task dull and repetitive. While the one-dollar group, more often than not, claimed to have genuinely enjoyed the task.
This is cognitive dissonance in action.
Essentially, for the $20 group, the money was a good reason to lie to their fellow test subject, and they could justify their own behaviour in their head. But, for the $1 group, the meagreness of the reward made their dishonesty internally unjustifiable, so they had to unconsciously create their own justification by convincing themselves they weren’t lying at all.
In summary, if you offer people a small reward for doing something, they will pretend to enjoy it, or be otherwise invested, to justify only making a small profit.