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More Shocking Psychology

More Shocking Psychology

In a previous article we discussed various studies that revealed conclusions which were shocking to the psychological community and the wider world upon their discovery. We looked at the work of Elizabeth Loftus into the memory of eyewitnesses, Solomon Asch into conformity within society, and Stanley Milgram into blind obedience to authority figures. In this article we’re going to look at another two psychological studies that changed the world and how we now look at human behaviour.

The first study we’ll cover is based around the principles of learning behaviours. In this case, the very specific behaviour of aggression. The researcher, Bandura, was interested in understanding how a behaviour like aggression would start, since it could not be explained by the most common behavioural methods of learning, classical and operant conditioning. While classical conditioning could explain negative attributions to an object, which of course might result in the use of aggression, and operant conditioning could explain why aggressive behaviours are repeated, since they may result in a reward of some form, neither of these theories could explain where aggression stemmed from in the first place. However, Bandura’s study of children from the Stanford University Nursery School, showed that children who watched adults using aggressive behaviour were more likely to display it themselves on the toys. Bandura used this evidence to form his Social Learning Theory, which hypothesised that we learn from watching other people’s behaviour and copying it. We are more likely to copy the behaviour of those we respect, such as our parents or celebrities on TV. While it is often seen as a given today that we learn behaviours from those around us, at the time this finding was revolutionary.

A second well known study which had a large impact on the world is Philip Zimbardo’s study on how an environment can impact on any individual’s behaviour. This study is perhaps as well known for its bad ethical practice as it is for its results themselves. In the study he took 24 American college students, and placed them in the basement of the Psychology department at Stanford University. He assigned half of the men the role of guard, and half the role of prisoner. Guards were given military style uniforms and dark glasses, and prisoners were given prisoners uniforms and would only be addresses by number. This would dehumanize them and separate them from the guards. Very quickly, the guards began to enjoy their control over the inmates, and the prisoners began to resent the guards. This resulted in violence and huge emotional turmoil within both groups. After 36 hours, one prisoner was released due to being in so much stress, and after 6 days Zimbardo was forced to shut the experiment down. The situation that the participants had been put in was designed to induce tension and tyrannical behaviour in the participants, but Zimbardo could not have predicted such a dramatic change in the behaviour of these ‘normal’ individuals. He used this study to show just what a large effect our environment has on our behaviour, and believed from his findings that “Any deed that any human being has ever done, however horrible, is possible for any of us to do – under the right or wrong situational pressures”.

These studies have showed how our environment, both when growing up, and in everyday society, has a huge effect on our behaviour. Using this knowledge, perhaps we should try to design out aggression and criminal behaviour from society, by learning how to create environments that dissuade people from this sort of behaviour rather than cause it.  A problem, however, with further research is that it tends to be a very unethical area of study. It also takes a very long time to study the developmental causes of aggression. Perhaps the most important thing that we can take from these important findings then, is that we can help ourselves, and society in a small way, by exposing ourselves to the right situations and learning that not everything we see our role models do is a good behaviour to copy.


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