Social experiment

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A social experiment is a research project conducted with human subjects in the real world. It typically investigates the effects of a policy intervention by randomly assigning individuals, families, businesses, classrooms, or other units to different treatments or to a controlled condition that represents the status quo.[1] The qualifier "social" distinguishes a policy experiment from a "clinical" experiment, typically a medical intervention within the subject's body, and also from a laboratory experiment, such as a university psychology faculty might conduct under completely controlled conditions. In a social experiment, randomization to assigned treatment is the only element in the subject's environment that the researchers control. All other elements remain exactly what they were.[2]


Social experiments are often referred to as "the gold standard" for program evaluation and reform processes. In measuring the impact of a social program, the researcher has to assess what the outcomes of the relevant population would have been in the absence of the program.[3] Almost every naturally occurring comparison group, however, will differ from the composition of a non-random treatment group, usually because of selection bias (outside of an experiment, people choose to receive the treatment or choose not to). Randomization helps to create a control group that is statistically identical in large sample with the group that is assigned to receive the treatment, and in principle there is no selection bias.[2]


The starting differentiation of the general field of psychology into physiological and social psychology as suggested by Wilhelm Wundt in 1862 lay way for the first social experiments. In 1895, American psychologist Norman Triplett constructed one of the first social experiments with the intention to study the influence of a group on racing performance. During the 1920s, Gordon Allport used experimental methods to study conformity, nonverbal communication, and social facilitation, shaping social psychology as we know it.[4]

The social experiments that we commonly refer to today were conducted decades later; a famous example is Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment in 1963. Social experiments began in the United States as a test of the Negative Income Tax concept in the late 1960s and since then have been conducted on all the populated continents. Some "have pilot tested major innovations in social policy", some "have been used to assess incremental changes in existing programs", while some "have provided the basis for evaluating the overall efficacy of major existing programs. Most "have been used to evaluate policies targeted at disadvantaged population groups".[2][5]

During the 1970s, cristicism of the ethics and accusations of gender and racial bias led to a reassessment of both the field of social psychology and the conducted experiments. While experimental methods were still employed, other methods gained popularity.[4]

Today, we often see the term social experiment on video sharing platforms like youtube, used for lay people's experiments during which actors attempt to provoke responses from e.g. passersby, usually filmed with a hidden camera.[6]


Social experimentation has raised many ethical concerns, due to its manipulation of large groups of the population, often without consent.[7]

Best-known social experiments[edit]

Bystander Apathy (Effect)[edit]

Based on the real event of when the Kitty Genovese murder outside her home as bystanders watched and nobody came to her aid, the bystander effect occurs when individuals are less likely to assist a victim when other people are present. Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley coined the term bystander apathy after completing a classic experiment in 1964.[8]

For their experiment, Latané and Darley [8] tried to replicate the Genovese slaying by having participants aware of each other but unable to communicate directly. Each participant was in a cubical in contact with each other via a microphone, however only one voice was allowed to speak at a time. A taped recording played of a participant having an epileptic seizure. When the participant believed themselves to be alone they invariably attempted to find help. When the participant believed others were around the speed and frequency of response declined significantly. The authors concluded that situational factors play an influential role on bystander apathy. People are less likely to help in an emergency if other people are present. Two reasons were offered by Latané and Darley: first is diffusion of responsibility. The second is pluralistic ignorance or the mentality that if nobody else is helping, then I am not needed as well.

Current research on bystander apathy by psychologist Kyle Thomas et al, found that people’s decisions to help are influenced by their level of knowledge. While diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance are factors, the researchers found that bystanders’ decisions also consider what they know about other bystanders and the situation before getting involved.[9]


The HighScope Perry Preschool Project was evaluated in a randomized controlled trial of 123 children (58 were randomly assigned to a treatment group that received the program and a control group of 65 children that did not). Prior to the program, the preschool and control groups were equivalent in measures of intellectual performance and demographic characteristics. After the program the educational and life outcomes for the children receiving the program were much superior to outcomes for the children not receiving the program. Many of the program effects were significant or approaching significance.[10][11]

RAND Health Insurance Experiment[edit]

The RAND Health Insurance Experiment was an experimental study of health care costs, utilization and outcomes in the United States, which assigned people randomly to different kinds of plans and followed their behavior, from 1974 to 1982. As a result, it provided stronger evidence than studies that examine people afterwards who were not randomly assigned. It concluded that cost sharing reduced "inappropriate or unnecessary" medical care (overutilization), but also reduced "appropriate or needed" medical care. It did not have enough statistical power to tell whether people who got less appropriate or needed care were more likely to die as a result.


Oportunidades (now rebranded as "Prospera" ) is a government social assistance (welfare) program in Mexico founded in 2002, based on a previous program called Progresa, created in 1997.[12] It is designed to target poverty by providing cash payments to families in exchange for regular school attendance, health clinic visits, and nutrition support.[13] Oportunidades is credited with decreasing poverty and improving health and educational attainment in regions where it has been deployed.[14]

Moving to Opportunity[edit]

Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing was a randomized social experiment sponsored by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s among 4600 low-income families with children living in high-poverty public housing projects. The program was designed based on the assumption that households benefit from living in higher-opportunity neighborhoods. Early evaluations of the MTO program, however, showed minimal gains for participant families. One explanation for these findings is the short length of time which MTO families typically spent in lower-poverty neighborhoods; the positive effects of longer-term exposure to low-poverty neighborhoods appear more promising.[15]

Stanford prison experiment[edit]

The Stanford prison experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted at Stanford University on August 14–20, 1971, by a team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo using college students.[16] It was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research[17] and was of interest to both the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as an investigation into the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners. The experiment is a classic study on the psychology of imprisonment[18] and is a topic covered in most introductory psychology textbooks.[19]

Experiments by Muzafer Sherif[edit]

Sherif was a founder of modern social psychology, who developed several unique and powerful techniques for understanding social processes, particularly social norms and social conflict. Sherif's experimental study of autokinetic movement demonstrated how mental evaluation norms were created by human beings.[20] Sherif is equally famous for the Robbers Cave Experiments. This series of experiments, begun in Connecticut and concluded in Oklahoma, took boys from intact middle-class families, who were carefully screened to be psychologically normal, delivered them to a summer camp setting (with researchers doubling as counsellors) and created social groups that came into conflict with each other.

Hawthorne experiment[edit]

During these experiments provided by Elton Mayo, two groups of workers were separated from others to study the effects of different incentives on their work productivity. Different variations were tested, such as changing the light levels in the rooms. Other, more obvious incentives, such as monetary incentives and rest pauses, were also tested and seemed to show positive results. [21] Several conclusions were made, after the experiments finished:

  • when employees had more freedom to choose their own conditions and output standards, their productivity increased;
  • social interaction played an important role in creation of high level of group cohesion;
  • people tend to put more effort when they feel their worth and cooperate with each other.[21]


  1. ^ Thomas D. Cook and Donald T. campbell (1979): Quasi-experimentation: Design and Analysis Issues for Field Settings. Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 978-0-39-530790-8
  2. ^ a b c Robins, Philip K; Spiegelman, Robert G; Weiner, Samuel (1980). A Guaranteed Annual Income: Evidence from a Social Experiment. New York, New York: Academic Press. 
  3. ^ Campbell, Donald T. (1969). "Reforms as Experiments". American Psychologist. 24 (4): 409–429. doi:10.1037/h0027982. 
  4. ^ a b T D Cook; Shadish, and W. R. (1994). "Social Experiments: Some Developments over the Past Fifteen Years". Annual Review of Psychology. 45 (1): 545–580. doi:10.1146/ 
  5. ^ David Greenberg and Mark Shroder. "The Digest of Social Experiments, Third Edition". Archived from the original on November 30, 2011. Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  6. ^ citation needed
  7. ^ Humphreys, Macartan (2015-06-01). "Reflections on the Ethics of Social Experimentation". Journal of Globalization and Development. 6 (1). doi:10.1515/jgd-2014-0016. ISSN 1948-1837. 
  8. ^ a b Latane, Bibb; John M. Darley (June 1, 1970). The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help?. Prentice Hal. ISBN 0139386130. 
  9. ^ Thomas, Kyle A.; De Freitas, Julian; DeScioli, Peter; Pinker, Steven (2016). "Recursive Mentalizing and Common Knowledge in the Bystander Effect". Journal of Experimental Psychology. 145 (5): 621–629. 
  10. ^ Significant Benefits, The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 27
  11. ^ Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy: Social Programs That Work: Perry Preschool Project
  12. ^ Paying for Better Parenting, New York Times, Accessed 12/07/06
  13. ^ Mexico's Oportunidades Program Accessed 12/07/06
  14. ^ Bulletin of the World Health Organization - Reaching Mexico's poorest Accessed 12/07/06
  15. ^ Blumenberg, Evelyn; Pierce, Gregory (December 2017). "Car Access and Long-term Poverty Exposure: Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) Experiment". Journal of Transport Geography. 65: 92–100. 
  16. ^ The Stanford Prison Experiment – A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University
  17. ^ FAQ on official site Archived 2012-09-09 at
  18. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2001-11-05. Retrieved 2015-04-19. 
  19. ^ Intro to psychology textbooks gloss over criticisms of Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment
  20. ^ Jaan Valsiner. Comparative study of human cultural development. Fundacion Infancia y Aprendizaje. 
  21. ^ a b "Elton Mayo: The Hawthorne Experiments Thinker". The British Library. Retrieved 2018-02-26.