Psychological Studies That Give Insight into the Human Mind

Study #1- The Milgrim Experiment

What Sparked the Study?

This experiment was initiated by Stanley Milgrim, a psychologist at Yale University. His goal was to focus on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He examined the defenses of “obedience” as justifications from WW2 and wanted to see how it correlated to the way humans act under an authoritarian.

The Experiment

Using an ad in the newspaper, Milgrim selected participants for the study. A participant was paired with another person (A person that knew about the experiment). They had a fixed drawing of straws to see who would be the “learner” and who would be the “teacher”. Because the draw was fixed, the participant was always the teacher. The learner was taken into a room next to the teacher and was strapped to electrodes. The teacher went into the next room and was greeted by an electric shock machine. The shock machine contained shocks from 15 volts-450 volts. In this experiment, there was also an experimenter, played by an actor.

The teacher tells the learner a list of words and gives the learner a series of tests that included naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner. The teacher was told to administer a shock every time the learner made a mistake, increasing the shock each time. The learner purposefully got the answers wrong to test the teacher. When the shocks got riskier and the teacher refused, the experimenter used four different means to urge the teacher to continue with the experiment.


2/3’s of the teachers (participants) continued to the highest voltage, 450, a deathly shock. Revealing 65% of the participants would’ve killed someone because a person of authority told them to. All of the participants continued to at least 300 volts. Milgrim did 18 variations of this study, revealing similar outcomes. Milgrim explained the participants behavior by suggesting people have two types of behavior in social situations. The first behavior is the autonomous state, stating that people direct their own actions and take responsibility for the results. The second behavior is the agentic state, stating people allow others to direct their actions and pass the consequences to the person who gave the orders.

My thoughts

When I first learned about this in psychology class, I was immediately interested. This experiment really opened my eyes onto the extent people can go once following orders given by an authoritarian. This also really interests me because of its relation to WW2. I have never thought of a defense for the cruel actions inflicted by people at that time, but I thought Milgram’s approach was genius.

The Milgrim Experiment video:

Experiment #2- The Clark Doll Experiment

What sparked the experiment?

To aid in the case of Brown vs The Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall relied on the help from social scientists who had been studying the effects of segregation on African American children. The scientists’ names were Kenneth and Mamie Clark, they were asked by Thurgood to repeat experiments on the children of Clarendon County, South Carolina.

The experiment

Clark handed the African American children four dolls. Similar in all aspects except for their race, 2 boy dolls and 2 girl dolls. The Clarks asked the children a series of questions including: “Which doll looks the prettiest?” and “Which doll looks the most like you?”.


The study showed that most of the African American students at the time preferred the white doll over the black doll. The children would say the black doll was “bad” and they even went to the point where they said they most closely resembled the white doll because it was prettier. These experiments showed solid proof that African American children viewed themselves as “inferior to white children”, a thought they could have for the rest of their life. The results were used to persuade the courts that school segregation was making the African American children feel lesser, to the point where they hated themselves for the color of their skin. The American Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools were anything but equal.

My thoughts

I feel this experiment gave us an impeccable view on the way the minds of the African American children worked at the time. It proved that the children felt lesser, which is a terrible way to feel about the color of your skin. I’m so happy that this court case favored Brown because integrated schools are how schools should be. All students are given the opportunity to achieve and be the best version of themselves and I think that the opportunity given to the children of the US is an incredible one to have. This case paved the way for an integrated and better society.

For more insight on the topic, watch the movie “Separate but Equal”

Experiment #3- 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment

What sparked the experiment

To monitor how social situations affected human behavior, psychologist Philip Zimbardo decided to set up a mock prison experiment. The experiment took place in the basement of a Stanford psych building. Similar to the Milgram experiment, an ad was placed into a newspaper looking for volunteers to participate in the experiment. The team chose 24 undergraduates who were deemed physically and mentally healthy. Half of the participants were randomly chosen to be prisoners and half were chosen to be guards.

Setting up the experiment

To closely simulate the experiment, they called people who had experiences in the situations, one person being an ex-prisoner of seventeen years behind bars. They created prison cells with steel bars and cell numbers, and set up hidden cameras and a p.a. system to monitor the prisoners and guards. They also created “the hole” as solitary confinement for bad behaving prisoners. The prisoners were arrested and taken to the “Stanford County Jail” and processed as a normal inmate would be. Each prisoner had been stripped searched and doused in spray to kill germs. After going through the entry process, each prisoner was given a uniform that consisted of a smock like dress, stocking cap (to represent a shaved head), heavy chains on ankles, and rubber shoes. This was necessary in setting up their prison simulation. Each prisoner was issued an id number that now was how they were known. When talking, prisoners could only be referred to by their inmate number.

The participants who took on the role of guards had no training. They could do whatever they felt necessary to be obeyed by prisoners. They made their own set of rules based on how they felt the prison should run, and these rules were carried out by the prisons warden.

The experiment

The first day of the experiment passed by easily until the second morning where a rebellion had broken out. The prisoners ripped off their stocking caps and name tags and barricaded their cells with beds. Of course, this rebellion had to be taken care of by the guards, the guards broke into each cell, stripped the prisoners, took the beds out, and forced the leaders of the riot into “the hole”. The people who did not participate in the riot were given special privileges such as beds and food. Because there weren’t enough guards to always be on hand to physically take care of the “inmates”, the guards decided to use psychological tactics to punish bad prisoners. Prisoners were subjected to cruel punishments and emotional torture, so much to the point where prisoners were beginning to be released.

(WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT) More information on the experiment can be found at


The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but ended up lasting only 6 days. Prisoners basic human rights were being taken away and experimenters could no longer watch the suffering. One third of the guards began to show extreme violence and were put in a position of too much power. Even Zimbardo himself internalized the experiment. During the experiment, two prisoners had to be removed due to emotional distress. Of more than 50 visitors, one lady was the only one to raise concerns and that was when Zimbardo decided to end the experiment.

My thoughts:

I think this experiment is the definition of “taking things to the extreme”. It put the men in too high of a position of power that led them to become sadists. I also do wonder if normal prisons are subject to the same psychological changes as the one’s demonstrated in the experiment. Are we giving guards too much power over inmates? This experiment leaves me with lots of open ended questions that I would like answers to.

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