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10 Social Experiments That Redefined Society

These social experiments helped to shed light on why we do what we do. To see a social experiment with 600 unwilling test subjects, watch Ascension. Continues Tuesday 12/16 & Wednesday 12/17 at 9/8C on Syfy.

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1. The Stanford Prison Experiment

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Phillip Zimbardo turned Stanford University's psychology building into a prison. He took volunteers and split them into prisoners and guards. Within hours, the guards were sadistically harassing the prisoners. The experiment was meant to run for two weeks, but Zimbardo shut it down after six days because "there was real danger that someone might be physically or mentally damaged if it was allowed to run on."

2. The Marshmallow Test

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The marshmallow test has become famous for its findings on the benefits of self-control. Walter Mischel gave kids a marshmallow. He told them they could eat it now, or wait for him to return, when they could have two marshmallows. Years later, they found that "children who had waited for the second marshmallow generally fared better in life."

3. The Halo Effect

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Timothy Wilson and Richard Nisbett had a foreign lecturer speak to a group of students in a friendly manner, then had him speak more coldly, using the same script each time. The students "who saw the warm instructor rated his appearance, mannerisms, and accent as appealing, whereas those who saw the cold instructor rated these attributes as irritating." Wilson and Nisbett dubbed this unconscious alteration of personal judgment "the Halo Effect."

4. Asch's Conformity Experiment

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When Solomon Asch asked six people to judge the length of lines in a room together, he was actually testing the power of conformity. Five of them agreed to give wrong answers. The sixth subject was unaware of the collusion. Soon, the sixth subject started giving wrong answers to avoid the discomfort of disagreeing with the group.

5. The Milgram Experiment

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To test if respect for authority would trump people's sense of right and wrong, Stanley Milgram had his subjects administer increasingly painful shocks to an unseen patient (who was in on the experiment, and not actually being shocked). A scientific authority in the room would urge the subject to continue, despite the patient's pleading to stop. How many subjects administered the full treatment of shocks? 65%.

6. Harlow's Monkey Experiments

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Harry Harlow's experiments showed that the love we feel for our parents isn't just about sustenance, it's also about comfort. He took baby monkeys away from their birth mothers and had them "raised" by a wire monkey and a cloth monkey. Harlow found that the babies spent way more time with the cloth monkey "even when their physical nourishment came from bottles mounted on the bare wire mothers."

7. The Bystander Effect

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John Darley and Bibb Latané devised an experiment to test if the number of people in an area affected someone's likelihood of responding to a call for help. Their subjects were in a room where smoke began to emerge from another room. Subjects who were alone in the room responded 75% of the time. If subjects were in groups of three, they responded only 38% of the time. If two of the three were told to ignore the smoke, the third subject would only respond 10% of the time.

8. The Robbers Cave Experiment

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Remember Lord of the Flies? Well, that kind of happened in the Robbers Cave Experiment in Oklahoma. In the first phase, two groups of boys formed, each unaware of the other. A week later, the groups were introduced and placed in direct competition with each other. It didn't take long for the two groups of otherwise nice boys to turn violent against each other. Muzafer Sherif, the study's author, called this phenomenon Realistic Conflict Theory.

9. Blue Eyes Versus Brown Eyes

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One of the most famous social experiments wasn't conducted by a psychologist, but rather by an elementary school teacher. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Elliott segregated her class based on whether they had blue eyes or brown eyes. Quickly after, the children began to act accordingly. When one blue-eyed student got a math problem wrong, a brown-eyed student said, "Well, what do you expect from him, Mrs. Elliott? He's a bluey!"

10. Festinger & Carlson's Work On Cognitive Dissonance

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In 1959, Festinger and Carlson began to research just why it is we lie to ourselves. Their findings showed that if we are paid a lot to tell a lie, we are less likely to believe that lie. However, if we are paid little or nothing to lie, we suddenly have to convince ourselves that the lie was actually true in order to justify the action to ourselves.

The crew of Ascension thought they were searching for a new home planet. Actually, they're part of a massive social experiment that never left Earth. Find out what happens by watching Ascension. Continues Tues. 12/16 & Wed. 12/17 at 9/8C on Syfy.

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