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November 9, 2012 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Milgram Experiment: Give me examples of other psychological experiments which involved false pretenses.

I've seen this question, but that seems to have a lot more to do with ethics and isn't really what I'm after. Mostly I'm curious about psuedo-gaslighting on behalf of research.
posted by shakespeherian to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
There was this study where the participants were told they were measuring gender differences in performance, but they were actually measuring the effect of talking about gender differences on performance. I expect there's a lot of similar examples - is that the kind of thing you're asking about?
posted by jacalata at 11:22 AM on November 9, 2012

Simple false pretenses, as opposed to abusive deception — I suspect this happens all the time. When I was in college (60s) I signed up as a paid subject at the psychology department, where they were always running crazy experiments and you could get minimum wage for your participation. I recall several that were involved mild deception. In one, there were two subjects, both being tested at the same time. All you had to do is guess the length of various sticks, stuff like that. The other "subject" was actually a plant, and would start out with reasonable guesses but progressively get farther from reality. The idea was to see how long the real subject would carry on, or whether s/he would say something about the plant's performance. In another experiment, with a ton of electrodes attached to my head, I was shown a very long but repeating series of projected pictures and asked to predict the next one. I was told that what was being tested was how long it would take me to memorize the series. But the length of the series and the speed of the pictures was such that it was basically impossible to learn. I did not say that but valiantly kept trying. Finally they shut the thing down and told me the equipment had broken so the test was over. I was not told this but I suspect that the point was to see how long it would take for people to give up.
posted by beagle at 11:22 AM on November 9, 2012

jacalta-- yes, thanks!
posted by shakespeherian at 11:31 AM on November 9, 2012

In a general sense, this is very common; there are many many many of these experiments across all of experimental psychology. It's called deception. Basically anything that has to do with unconscious processes has some sham task, for example, responding whether a word is presented with green or red text, when in fact you're going to be tested on the words later (implicit memory). Lots of perception tasks where the subject isn't supposed to focus on what's actually being tested will have this sort of sham task. The examples are endless.

Because of experiments like Milgram's, university IRBs require debriefing (where the subjects learn about the experiment and what's actually being tested) after it's done.
posted by supercres at 11:33 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, there are thousands. One famous one: In the Rosenhan Experiment, patients falsely claimed to be hearing voices in order to be committed to psychiatric hospitals.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:34 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes I should say: I'm aware it's a common practice, but I'm looking for particularly notable examples, I suppose.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:36 AM on November 9, 2012

Asch's experiment on conformity, which (depressingly) demonstrated how much peer influence matters -- people will fall in line to it even when the peers are clearly wrong.
posted by susanvance at 11:44 AM on November 9, 2012

Experiments that give students a test, but give them different reasons for taking the test, can produce different results. The effect is called Stereotype Threat. It may have a brother (ahem) effect as well: "The Obama Effect."
posted by Sunburnt at 11:49 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

There was an example of what I guess is Asch's Experiment on last night's episode of Red Dwarf.
"Raise your hands all who think this [clearly bluish-purple square] is purple." (nobody)
"Blue?" (Rimmer tentatively raises his hand)
"Green?" (The whole class of accomplices raise their hands, and Rimmer joins them)
posted by jozxyqk at 11:57 AM on November 9, 2012

I can give you a few personal answers here if you want of studies I've either run or been a participant in, but it sounds like you're after well-known examples. So, although you may have run across him already, if not, check out Laud Humphreys' ~1960s studies of closeted gay men, in which he deceived them about how he had identified them, and about the purpose of his research and what he was going to do with the information gathered, because he was gathering such sensitive information for that time that they probably wouldn't have given it had they known what they were contributing to.
posted by Stacey at 12:19 PM on November 9, 2012

I've read of studies on babies that seem like "psuedo-gaslighting" to me. For example, to test whether babies have basic math skills, and if so to what degree, they'll do things like place a screen in front of a baby, show the baby a ball, put the ball behind the screen, show the baby another ball, put it behind the screen, and so on. Then they remove the screen, but in the meantime may or may not have surreptitiously added balls or removed balls. If I remember correctly, babies stare at the revealed group of balls longer on average when it does not contain the "correct" number of balls.
posted by Flunkie at 12:52 PM on November 9, 2012

You might be interested in this: The Rise and Fall of Deception in Social Psychology and Personality Research. They suggest that the heyday of this sort of thing was from the 50s through the 70s, when there was a strong tendency in the field to use lifelike, totally immersive experimental setups.

A lot of experiments from that era, if you read about them now, tend to sound more like reality show setups or episodes of Candid Camera than anything else. They didn't always involve deception: for instance, in the infamous Stanford prison experiment, the participants knew up front what the researchers were going to do. But even the non-deceptive ones were often deeply manipulative in a way that wouldn't now be considered ethical — pushing people to act in certain ways or adopt certain roles in a hyper-realistic situation.

If that's the sort of thing you're looking for, one of the best lesser-known examples is the Robber's Cave experiment: two groups of boys go to a "summer camp" that's actually a large-scale experiment on inter-group hostility. Hijinks ensue.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:11 PM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

A pretty nice overview of bogus pipeline studies. BPL essentially is an attempt to (deceptively) convince the participant that you have a machine that can perfectly determine whether the participant is lying or telling the truth -- with the hopes that the convinced participant will then simply tell the truth about possibly sensitive subjects (e.g., unpopular attitudes, illegal behaviors).

As nebulawindphone says, it does almost seem like a reality show setup.
posted by mean square error at 6:23 PM on November 9, 2012

You might also like this paper on "emotion elicitation," a.k.a. "making people happy/sad/angry/ashamed/scared for science."

Basically, if you want to study differences in behavior between (say) angry people and not-angry people, then you need a reliable way of making people angry. And it's hard to make someone angry when they know the whole thing is just playacting. So almost inevitably you end up needing to use deception, and then debrief them (and calm them down) afterwards.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:42 PM on November 9, 2012

There's some great work by Elizabeth Loftus that involved creating false childhood memories.
posted by parudox at 11:31 PM on November 9, 2012

Flunkie is talking about the Karen Wynn study that was the basis of my MA. When you add more conditions, the effect disappears.

If anyone wants a copy of the publication, PM me and I'll send you a link. It's directly on the Univ. of Texas website.
posted by kathrynm at 1:11 AM on November 10, 2012

In this experiement (forming a chapter of this book) male test subjects were paid $5 and told they were told they would be tested on "limited response time conditions on certain facets of human judgment" which was, technically, true. What they didn't know was that each test subject, as they walked down a hall, would be jostled and called an asshole by one of the research team (pretending to be an unaffiliated bystander). And the tests they went through after this were to determine if men from different regions of the US would react with different levels of anger/amusement/indifference/hostility after such an affront.
posted by K.P. at 4:09 AM on November 10, 2012

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