Classic studies in psychology merely tell us what we already know

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So called ‘classic’ studies are dubbed such because of the high profile they have achieved, normally attributed to the influence the study has had or the contribution it has made to a specific area of psychology. Although no-one can dispute that some of these studies affected the way in which certain topics were approached and interpreted, whether they simply reiterated what we already knew is a subject open for discussion.

It could be argued that it is sometimes other factors relating to the experiment, rather than the experiment itself, that magnetises the publicity and consequently the high profile. As these are the experiments that will be the most documented and those most referred to in general conversation and academic forums alike, it is easy to assume that they are responsible for the knowledge they represent, even if this is not exactly the true. It has been said that this is the case for Milgram’s obedience study (1963).

Milgram had led participants to believe they were participating in an experiment to do with memory and that they were required to ‘shock’ (although no shocks were actually given) another participant (who was in fact a confederate) with increasing intensity if they got a question wrong. The huge ethical implications of the study could have been enough to propel it into the media spotlight without the actual contribution to social psychology playing much part in the publicity, and therefore it may not have unearthed anything we didn’t know previously.

However, contrary to this claim, the results this experiment generated surpassed even Milgram’s expectations. Originally, rather than aiming to produce a theory of obedience, his plans were to test the idea that German people were different from others and would be much more likely to follow commands from an authority figure as this was the argument commonly used to explain how normal German people could have carried out the atrocities of the Nazi’s in World War II.

The experiment was conducted in America at first, and Milgram had plans to repeat it in Germany, but as the results showed phenomenally high levels of obedience in American people he no longer saw this comparison as necessary. This suggests a lack of knowledge in this area before this study was carried out, as otherwise Milgram would have known what to expect. Additionally, a survey was conducted asking 14 psychology students and 40 psychiatrists what they predicted the results would show, with both claiming that few participants would withdraw during the early stages and late stages and that the majority would do so somewhere in the middle.

It was predicted that less that 1% would continue until the end, but the actual results indicated that this number was in fact closer to 65%. The fact that experts such as these could not accurately predict the participants’ behaviour in this situation shows a distinct lack of previous research on this topic and therefore proves the originality and the new information that Milgram’s study provided. It has even been described as an enduring classic in social psychology (Blass, 1991).

However, Nissani (1990) claims that Milgram simply gives an insight into the existence of obedience but misses the main question raised by the experiments: the cause of such behaviour. Therefore, it is Nissani’s opinion that Milgram’s study is not as informative as it is generally believed to be and so does to an extent, tell us roughly what we already know rather than shed light on the real issue, leaving the overall consensus on the usefulness of this study very much inconclusive. Another study hailed as a classic is that carried out by Zimbardo, Haney and Banks (1973), dubbed the ‘prison simulation experiment’.

Volunteers, who were American university students, were randomly assigned to the role of either a prisoner or a guard and were then placed in a prison-like environment where the prisoners would remain captive and supervised by the prison guards 24 hours a day who were permitted to enforce their own rules and regulations. After 6 days the experiment had to be abandoned due to concerns over the psychological health of the prisoners and the intensity of the punishments and conditions implemented by the guards.

Zimbardo et al were able to support the hypothesis that the participants behaviour will be significantly altered depending on the condition they have been assigned to, with the guards becoming abusive and inflicting arbitrary control and the prisoners developing what was named as pathological prisoner syndrome. Although this study had a huge impact on how people viewed the way people behave in prisons, the latter two points had been previously investigated. The presence of pathological prisoner syndrome was studied by Walster (1966) so this is not necessarily new information.

However, the fact that the experiment had to be abandoned after 6 days despite being planned to last for 28 does indicate that the intensity of the behaviour of the participants surpassed expectations, and therefore it did give new information as to the severity of the problem. The predominant view held before this experiment was conducted was that the reason prisoners and prison guards acted in the way they did because of the type of people likely to belong to each group as for example, prisoners will be such because they have committed a crime and therefore will be the type of person who will be deviant.

This experiment disproved this, as these participants conformed to their roles as they do in real prisons, despite being randomly allocated and psychologically normal and healthy students. Therefore, it would appear that new information and a new insight was achieved by the study, despite the claim that the only reason for its high status is the reaction it received for being so unethical.

However, even Zimbardo himself admits it is unlikely it could ever be repeated due to stricter ethical guidelines, so this could be one aspect of the study’s popularity as it is, and will always be, the only authority on this particular topic. Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) is another study that has been called a classic. This was one of the first experiments using a bobo doll to demonstrate the existence of vicarious or observational learning and involved 72 children, 36 male and 36 female aged from 37 to 69 months.

These children were divided into 8 groups, with half being exposed to aggressive models and half non-aggressive models and divided further into male or female models. It was found that those exposed to the aggressive model acted more aggressively towards the bobo doll than those who were not. This now seems like common sense, as many have witnessed children adopting behaviour similar to those around them and many warnings are given about exposing them to violent or inappropriate material, making the results from this experiment rather redundant and indeed only demonstrating what is already known.

However, it must be taken into consideration that it is possible that the reason that this view is so readily accepted now is because of the breakthrough made by the experiment itself, as it has been argued that this was “the first generation” of empirical research into this area (Baron 1977). This would demonstrate that before this, the results were not simply ‘common sense’ and this is further supported by the fact that behaviourism was the predominant school of thought at the time this experiment was conducted, making operant and classic conditioning the accepted explanation of learning, not observational learning.

Gross (2004) described Bandura’s approach as a ‘major alternative’ to these theories, which highlights how different it must be from them, indicating originality. On the other hand, some research does exist that reflect the results in this experiment such as Bandura and Huston (1961) in which it was found that children will mimic the behaviour of a model if the model is present. It could be said that this would suggest the same would occur without and that it merely elaborates this point, and does not give breakthrough information expected from a ‘classic’ study.

Additionally, experiments such as those by Blake (1958), Rosenblith (1959) and Schachter and Hall (1952) have demonstrated that when children observe the response of a model, their behaviour in the same situation is affected, which does seem very similar to the results collected from the experiment in question. From this it would be sensible to infer the reaction of children when shown aggressive or non-aggressive models.

Bandura et al (1961) defended the originality and importance of their study by claiming that although these prior studies indicate the direction the results may take, it was necessary for more research to be conducted to enable the imitative responses to be generalized to novel settings without the model present. If this is true, then it does not tell us what we already know, as more information is needed for us to fully understand the topic.

One argument is that not only did the Bandura et al (1961) study give more information about the effects of observational learning but also shed light on the correct interpretation of others. This could be said for the investigation carried out by Miller and Dolland (1941) which claimed to give evidence for imitation learning, by showing adult or peer models performing discrimination responses and being rewarded for doing such, as were the participants if they did the same.

However, in light of the method used by Bandura it was decided that what this experiment actually showed was discrimination learning, as the responses given by the children were already in their repertoire; they were not learning new behaviours through it. The Bandura et al (1961) experiment, however, showed that children could reproduce the behaviour shown to them in novel ways and arrange responses and actions into new patterns to fit the requirements of the situation.

Therefore in this respect, the experiment does indeed give a lot of information and clarity to the topic that would not have otherwise been present. However, despite the arguments outlined above, Bandura still fails to offer an explanation of the underlying mechanisms behind the behaviour recorded. As with the Milgram study, it could be said that without this the information that the experiment produced is redundant as it simply elaborates on what has been discovered previously without trying to give detailed reasons for why it occurs, which some have argued is the point of psychology.

In conclusion, due to the huge amount of publicity and acknowledgment classic studies in psychology receive, it is easy for them to be misinterpreted or for the results to be perceived as more groundbreaking than they actually are. Previous experiments have in some cases predicted the results found in such studies which could lead people to the opinion that they do simply reiterate what has already been discovered. However, in many cases such as Bandura et al (1961), this knowledge has been added to and this has made it possible to generalise the findings to situations not covered by this original research.

Although certain of areas of psychology have been well investigated, sometimes it requires clarification or further support and some of the classic studies in psychology have served this purpose. Because of this, it is occasionally hard to ascertain if these studies do repeat the results found by the studies they are based on or if their contribution is sufficient for it to be deemed as new information, leaving the answer very much down to individual opinion.

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