Social experiment

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

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 as 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, non-verbal 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, criticism 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]

The term social experiment appears to have been co-opted in modern times to represent more loosely designed activities, less scientifically planned, but many times with similar aims though sometimes executed as a prank. Of significance is the fact that American President Herbert Hoover, described Prohibition using this term[6] indicating the evolution of its formal definition even as early as 1920.


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 around the murder of Kitty Genovese right outside her home, The New York Times stated that there were 38 witnesses that either saw or heard the fatal stabbing take place, and not a single person came to her aid. Although this number was proven to be exaggerated, this murder was known as what was coined "bystander apathy" by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley in 1968.[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] At age 40, the participants were interviewed once more, and school, social services, and arrest records were pulled. The participants had higher earning jobs, committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to hold a job than adults who did not attend preschool.

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.


Opportunidades (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 counselors) and created social groups that came into conflict with each other.

Bobo doll experiment[edit]

The Bobo doll experiment was a study carried out by Albert Bandura who was a professor at Stanford University. It focused on the study of aggression using three groups of preschoolers as the subjects. Bandura took inflatable plastic toys called Bobo dolls and weighted them down to always stand upright. The preschoolers were divided into three groups by gender, and then into six subgroups. One of the groups would observe an adult act aggressively towards the bobo doll, another group would observe an adult with non-aggressive behaviors, and the last group would not be exposed to any behavior models. The study found the preschoolers exposed to the aggressive behavior had imitated the aggressiveness towards the doll, regardless of gender. The other two groups showed significantly less hostility towards the doll. The study had showed aggressive and non-aggressive behaviors were learned by observing others and had a significant effect on the subjects even after the study was concluded.[21]

Stanford marshmallow experiment[edit]

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a study done by psychologist Walter Mischel on delayed gratification in the early 1970s. During the three studies,In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.[22]

Asch Conformity experiment[edit]

The Asch experiment took place in the Swarthmore College in 1951. Solomon Asch conducted an experiment to investigate the extent where social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform.[23] Asch took 50 people from the college to participate in a vision test. They were paired up with 7 other people who they believed to be random, but instead were part of control group who would choose the same answers. The real participant would give his or her answers last. Out of the 18 trials, the group gave the wrong answers 12 times. 75% of the participants conformed once or more, and 25% never conformed to the group's wrong answers. Participants were interviewed after the experiment, and although they knew the answers were wrong, they conformed to not be ridiculed by the group. A few individuals said they thought the groups answers were correct. Asch concluded that people conformed because they either wanted to fit in, or thought the group was right.

Hawthorne experiment[edit]

The Hawthorne experiment took place in 1924 in the city of Chicago. Elton Mayo is widely known as the person behind the project. However, his involvement started in 1928 after he was invited by George Pennock, the Assistant Works Manager for the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric. During the experiment, workers were separated into two groups to study the effects of different incentives on their 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.[24] 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.[24]

Less formal social experiments[edit]

Female Catcaller[edit]

Comedian Tegan Higginbotham doled out a series of pick-up lines on a handful of men wandering the streets of Melbourne in a bid to flip the lid on sexist remarks as part of an experiment for the SBS show 'Is Australia Sexist?

Brightside picks 13[edit]

The website[25] made a selection of 13 such experiments worldwide to report on, ranging from free produce, to fairness in driver penalties and a piano staircase.


  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. ^ ""A great social experiment": your guide to prohibition". History Extra.
  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[citation needed]
  11. ^ Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy: Social Programs That Work: Perry Preschool Project[citation needed]
  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. ^ "8. Conclusion". Stanford Prison Experiment.
  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.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  19. ^ "Intro to psychology textbooks gloss over criticisms of Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment". 7 September 2014.
  20. ^ Jaan Valsiner. Comparative study of human cultural development. Fundacion Infancia y Aprendizaje.
  21. ^ .
  22. ^ "Delaying Gratification" (PDF). Retrieved 17 December 2018.
  23. ^ McLeod, Saul. "Asch Experiment". Simply Psychology. Retrieved 16 December 2018.
  24. ^ a b "Elton Mayo: The Hawthorne Experiments Thinker". The British Library. Retrieved 2018-02-26.
  25. ^ "13 Social Experiments That Didn't Go According to Plan and Revealed a Lot About Us". BrightSide — Inspiration. Creativity. Wonder. 22 December 2017.