11 Most Influential Psychological Experiments

The 11 Most Influential Psychological Experiments in History

The history of psychology is marked by groundbreaking experiments that transformed our understanding of the human mind. These 11 Most Influential Psychological Experiments in History stand out as pivotal, offering profound insights into behaviour, cognition, and the complexities of human nature.

In this PsychologyOrg article, we’ll explain these key experiments, exploring their impact on our understanding of human behaviour and the intricate workings of the mind.

Experimental Psychology

Experimental psychology is a branch of psychology that uses scientific methods to study human behaviour and mental processes. Researchers in this field design experiments to test hypotheses about topics such as perception, learning, memory, emotion, and motivation.

They use a variety of techniques to measure and analyze behaviour and mental processes, including behavioural observations, self-report measures, physiological recordings, and computer simulations. The findings of experimental psychology studies can have important implications for a wide range of fields, including education, healthcare, and public policy.

Experimental Psychology, Psychologists have long tried to gain insight into how we perceive the world, to understand what motivates our behavior. They have made great strides in lifting that veil of mystery. In addition to providing us with food for stimulating party conversations, some of the most famous psychological experiments of the last century reveal surprising and universal truths about nature.

11 Most Influential Psychological Experiments in History

The 11 Most Influential Psychological Experiments in History

Throughout the history of psychology, revolutionary experiments have reshaped our comprehension of the human mind. These 11 experiments are pivotal, providing deep insights into human behaviour, cognition, and the intricate facets of human nature.

1. Kohler and the Chimpanzee experiment

Wolfgang Kohler studied the insight process by observing the behaviour of chimpanzees in a problem situation. In the experimental situation, the animals were placed in a cage outside of which food, for example, a banana, was stored. There were other objects in the cage, such as sticks or boxes. The animals participating in the experiment were hungry, so they needed to get to the food. At first, the chimpanzee used sticks mainly for playful activities; but suddenly, in the mind of the hungry chimpanzee, a relationship between sticks and food developed.

The cane, from an object to play with, became an instrument through which it was possible to reach the banana placed outside the cage. There has been a restructuring of the perceptual field: Kohler stressed that the appearance of the new behaviour was not the result of random attempts according to a process of trial and error. It is one of the first experiments on the intelligence of chimpanzees.

2. Harlow’s experiment on attachment with monkeys

In a scientific paper (1959), Harry F. Harlow described how he had separated baby rhesus monkeys from their mothers at birth, and raised them with the help of “puppet mothers”: in a series of experiments he compared the behavior of monkeys in two situations:

Little monkeys with a puppet mother without a bottle, but covered in a soft, fluffy, and furry fabric.
Little monkeys with a “puppet” mother that supplied food, but was covered in wire.
The little monkeys showed a clear preference for the “furry” mother, spending an average of fifteen hours a day attached to her, even though they were exclusively fed by the “suckling” puppet mother. conclusions of the Harlow experiment: all the experiments showed that the pleasure of contact elicited attachment behaviours, but the food did not.

3. The Strange Situation by Mary Ainsworth

Building on Bowlby’s attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth and colleagues (1978) have developed an experimental method called the Strange Situation, to assess individual differences in attachment security. The Strange Situation includes a series of short laboratory episodes in a comfortable environment and the child’s behaviors are observed.

Ainsworth and colleagues have paid special attention to the child’s behaviour at the time of reunion with the caregiver after a brief separation, thus identifying three different attachment patterns or styles, so called from that moment on. kinds of attachment according to Mary Ainsworth:

Secure attachment (63% of the dyads examined)
Anxious-resistant or ambivalent (16%)
Avoidant (21%)
The Strange Situation by Mary Ainsworth

In a famous 1971 experiment, known as the Stanford Prison, Zimbardo and a team of collaborators reproduced a prison in the garages of Stanford University to study the behaviour of subjects in a context of very particular and complex dynamics. Let’s see how it went and the thoughts on the Stanford prison experiment. The participants (24 students) were randomly divided into two groups:

Prisoners“. The latter were locked up in three cells in the basement of a University building for six days; they were required to wear a white robe with a paper over it and a chain on the right ankle.
Guards“. The students who had the role of prison guards had to watch the basement, choose the most appropriate methods to maintain order, and make the “prisoners” perform various tasks; they were asked to wear dark glasses and uniforms, and never to be violent towards the participants of the opposite role. However, the situation deteriorated dramatically: the fake police officers very soon began to seriously mistreat and humiliate the “detainees”, so it was decided to discontinue the experiment.

4. Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes Experiment

On April 5, 1968, in a small school in Riceville, Iowa, Professor Jane Elliot decided to give a practical lesson on racism to 28 children of about eight years of age through the blue eyes brown eyes experiment.

“Children with brown eyes are the best,” the instructor began. “They are more beautiful and intelligent.” She wrote the word “melanin” on the board and explained that it was a substance that made people intelligent. Dark-eyed children have more, so they are more intelligent, while blue-eyed children “go hand in hand.”

In a very short time, the brown-eyed children began to treat their blue-eyed classmates with superiority, who in turn lost their self-confidence. A very good girl started making mistakes during arithmetic class, and at recess, she was approached by three little friends with brown eyes “You have to apologize because you get in their way and because we are the best,” said one of them. The girl hastened to apologize. This is one of the psychosocial experiments demonstrating how beliefs and prejudices play a role.

5. The Bobo de Bbandura doll

Albert Bandura gained great fame for the Bobo doll experiment on child imitation aggression, where:

A group of children took as an example, by visual capacity, the adults in a room, without their behaviour being commented on, hit the Bobo doll. Other contemporaries, on the other hand, saw adults sitting, always in absolute silence, next to Bobo.

Finally, all these children were brought to a room full of toys, including a doll like Bobo. Of the 10 children who hit the doll, 8 were those who had seen it done before by an adult. This explains how if a model that we follow performs a certain action, we are tempted to imitate it and this happens especially in children who still do not have the experience to understand for themselves if that behaviour is correct or not.

6. Milgram’s experiment

The Milgram experiment was first carried out in 1961 by psychologist Stanley Milgram, as an investigation into the degree of our deference to authority. A subject is invited to give an electric shock to an individual playing the role of the student, positioned behind a screen when he does not answer a question correctly. An authorized person then tells the subject to gradually increase the intensity of the shock until the student screams in pain and begs to stop.

No justification is given, except for the fact that the authorized person tells the subject to obey. In reality, it was staged: there was absolutely no electric shock given, but in the experiment two-thirds of the subjects were influenced by what they thought was a 450-volt shock, simply because a person in authority told them they would not be responsible for it. nothing.

7. little Albert

We see little Albert’s experiment on unconditioned stimulus, which must be the most famous psychological study. John Watson and Rosalie Raynor showed a white laboratory rat to a nine-month-old boy, little Albert. At first, the boy showed no fear, but then Watson jumped up from behind and made him flinch with a sudden noise by hitting a metal bar with a hammer. Of course, the noise frightened little Albert, who began to cry.

Every time the rat was brought out, Watson and Raynor would rattle the bar with their hammer to scare the poor boy away. Soon the mere sight of the rat was enough to reduce little Albert to a trembling bundle of nerves: he had learned to fear the sight of a rat, and soon afterwards began to fear a series of similar objects shown to him.

8. Pavlov’s dog

Ivan Pavlov’s sheepdog became famous for his experiments that led him to discover what we call “classical conditioning” or “Pavlovian reflex” and is still a very famous psychological experiment today. Hardly any other psychological experiment is cited so often and with such gusto as Pavlov’s theory expounded in 1905: the Russian physiologist had been impressed by the fact that his dogs did not begin to drool at the sight of food, but rather when they heard it. to the laboratory employees who took it away.

He researched it and ordered a buzzer to ring every time it was mealtime. Very soon the sound of the doorbell was enough for the dogs to start drooling: they had connected the signal to the arrival of food.

9. Asch’s experiment

It is about a social psychology experiment carried out in 1951 by the Polish psychologist Solomon Asch on the influence of the majority and social conformity.

The experiment is based on the idea that being part of a group is a sufficient condition to change a person’s actions, judgments, and visual perceptions. The very simple experiment consisted of asking the subjects involved to associate line 1 drawn on a white sheet with the corresponding one, choosing between three different lines A, B, and C present on another sheet. Only one was identical to the other, while the other two were longer or shorter.

The experimentation was carried out in three phases. As soon as one of the subjects, Asch’s accomplice gave a wrong answer associating line 1 with the wrong one, the other members of the group also made the same mistake, even though the correct answer was more than obvious. The participants questioned the reason for this choice and responded that aware of the correct answer, they had decided to conform to the group, adapting to those who had preceded them.

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10. Rosenbaum’s experiment

Among the most interesting investigations in this field, an experiment carried out by David Rosenhan (1923) to document the low validity of psychiatric diagnoses stands out. Rosenhan admitted eight assistants to various psychiatric hospitals claiming psychotic symptoms, but once they entered the hospital they behaved as usual.

Despite this, they were held on average for 19 days, with all but one being diagnosed as “psychotic”. One of the reasons why the staff is not aware of the “normality” of the subjects, is, according to Rosenhan, the very little contact between the staff and the patients.

11. Bystander Effect (1968)

The Bystander Effect studied in 1968 after the tragic case of Kitty Genovese, explores how individuals are less likely to intervene in emergencies when others are present. The original research by John Darley and Bibb Latané involved staged scenarios where participants believed they were part of a discussion via intercom.

In the experiment, participants were led to believe they were communicating with others about personal problems. Unknown to them, the discussions were staged, and at a certain point, a participant (confederate) pretended to have a seizure or needed help.

The results were startling. When participants believed they were the sole witness to the emergency, they responded quickly and sought help. However, when they thought others were also present (but were confederates instructed to not intervene), the likelihood of any individual offering help significantly decreased. This phenomenon became known as the Bystander Effect.

The diffusion of responsibility, where individuals assume others will take action, contributes to this effect. The presence of others creates a diffusion of responsibility among bystanders, leading to a decreased likelihood of any single individual taking action.

This experiment highlighted the social and psychological factors influencing intervention during emergencies and emphasized the importance of understanding bystander behaviour in critical situations.

11 Most Influential Psychological Experiments in History


The journey through the “11 Most Influential Psychological Experiments in History” illuminates the profound impact these studies have had on our understanding of human behaviour, cognition, and social dynamics.

Each experiment stands as a testament to the dedication of pioneering psychologists who dared to delve into the complexities of the human mind. From Milgram’s obedience studies to Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, these trials have shaped not only the field of psychology but also our societal perceptions and ethical considerations in research.

They serve as timeless benchmarks, reminding us of the ethical responsibilities and the far-reaching implications of delving into the human psyche. The enduring legacy of these experiments lies not only in their scientific contributions but also in the ethical reflections they provoke, urging us to navigate the boundaries of knowledge with caution, empathy, and an unwavering commitment to understanding the intricacies of our humanity.


What is the most famous experiment in the history of psychology?

One of the most famous experiments is the Milgram Experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. It investigated obedience to authority figures and remains influential in understanding human behaviour.

Who wrote the 25 most influential psychological experiments in history?

The book “The 25 Most Influential Psychological Experiments in History” was written by Michael Shermer, a science writer and historian of science.

What is the history of experimental psychology?

Experimental psychology traces back to Wilhelm Wundt, often considered the father of experimental psychology. He established the first psychology laboratory in 1879 at the University of Leipzig, marking the formal beginning of experimental psychology as a distinct field.

What was the psychological experiment in the 1960s?

Many significant psychological experiments were conducted in the 1960s. One notable example is the Stanford Prison Experiment led by Philip Zimbardo, which examined the effects of situational roles on behaviour.

Who was the first experimental psychologist?

Wilhelm Wundt is often regarded as the first experimental psychologist due to his establishment of the first psychology laboratory and his emphasis on empirical research methods in psychology.

If you want to read more articles similar to The 11 Most Influential Psychological Experiments in History, we recommend that you enter our Psychology category.

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