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Science: 

5 social experiments to put Facebook to shame

social experiments facebook

A Facebook employee, yesterday.

Recently Facebook has had to apologize for experimenting on its users. It seems a bit harsh: if you had an ant-farm with millions of ants in it, wouldn’t you want to play God just a little bit?

But people are far more fun than ants (we’re sure there are some fascinating ants out there, but we’ve never been seated next to the right one at a dinner party), and Facebook decided it’d be a great idea to play with its ant-farm by showing some people nothing but sad news to see what happened. Then OKCupid got in on the act, saying that they too had enjoyed playing – well, if not God, then some kind of spirit guide – with their users.

People were outraged. People are good at that part, but less good at actually doing anything with that outrage.  If you’re looking for something to make you feel better about your total lack of willpower, you came to the right place. Here are five social experiments from history that make Zuckerberg and Co look like Dr Bunsen Honeydew. Some of these experiments wouldn’t be allowed nowadays for fairly obvious ethical reasons, so don’t try this at home. Or in your private lab, or whatever.

1. Children made to feel extreme guilt

"LOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE!" (Or why this child will never trust a scientist again)

“LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE!” (Or why this child will never trust a scientist again)

This is one for fans of making children feel incredibly uncomfortable. Researchers would introduce toddlers to a toy, claiming it was a precious heirloom that they’d had since childhood.

Then in something resembling a twisted version of America’s Funniest Home Videos, the toy would break as soon as the child touched it. The researcher would say just two words: “Oh my”, and then would stare at the child for 60 seconds. They discovered that the toddlers who showed the most guilt (which involved hugging themselves and covering their face with their hands, poor mites) would go on to have the least behavioral issues later in life.

The children involved were eventually told the toys could be easily repaired and shown an in-tact replica, but we’re willing to bet that the next time they broke something, they’d expectedly look around for a white-coated researcher to magically fix their problems.

2. School turned into a jail; dark side of humanity exposed

Well. That's just asking for trouble.

Well. That’s just asking for trouble.

The Stamford Prison Experiment needs no introduction. Well, it doesn’t anymore – we imagine if the poor saps involved had been given an introduction, they might not have signed on the dotted line so fast.

24 male students were randomly assigned the role of ‘guard’ or ‘prisoner’, showing that justice is not only blind, but also a bit sexist. It was supposed to last 14 days, and subjects were paid $15 per day for their time (closer to $88 in today’s money).

The ‘guards’ began abusing their position and a third of them were said to have displayed “genuine sadistic tendencies” including forcing prisoners to strip naked, forcing them to sleep on hard concrete and refusing to empty the bucket which doubled as a cell toilet. Two of the prisoners jacked the whole thing in, and the experiment ended abruptly just six days into the trial. Why did it end early? The psychologist’s girlfriend (later to be his wife), a research assistant working on the experiment objected to its morality: the first of 50 people to see it to raise any concerns.

3. A French Town Gets Spiked with LSD

This bread is probably fine. Might want some butter, mind.

This bread is probably fine. Might want some butter, mind.

In 1951, the small picturesque town of Pont-Saint-Espirity in south-east France had a period of sudden unexplained insanity: a man tried to drown himself, afraid his stomach was being eaten by snakes; a man broke his legs believing he was a plane and jumping from a second-story window; and another begged a doctor to put his heart back in, after he saw it escape through his feet. The asylum rapidly filled up.

For years after this, the whole incident was blamed on accident: ergot, a psychedelic mould infecting some local bread, but The Telegraph reports a more disturbing theory: the the CIA covertly laced the local bread in the village with diethylamide – which literally puts the D in LSD. If true, this was all part of US experiments in mental manipulation of troops and prisoners, following the Korean war. To this day, village inhabitants still talk about ‘Le Pain Maudit’ (“Cursed Bread”) no matter what the cause of it.

4. Researchers stage a fake epileptic fit to see if subjects help

"Aaaah, he's probably fine."

“Aaaah, he’s probably fine.”

After a prominent murder case in which bystanders stood around without helping, a 1964 experiment tested whether students would react to a faked emergency during another decoy study. Disappointing results followed.

Students were made to join in a teleconference style discussion where they couldn’t see the other student(s) faces. Little did they know, everyone else in the study was a recording. After a period of time, one of the voices – after earlier mentioning their epilepsy – stress out the subject by saying:

“I’m… I’m having a fit… I.. I think I’m… help me… I… I can’t… Oh my God… errr… if someone can just help me out here… I… I… can’t breathe p-p-properly… I’m feeling… I’m going to d-d-die if…”

So how did our subjects react? Well, at first things look positive: Of the sample who believed they were in a one-on-one chat, 85% sought a researcher for help. God knows what the other 15% were doing, but let’s be generous and assume they weren’t listening and were just in the study for the money.

However, when the students thought they weren’t the only one hearing the call for help, just 31% bothered to lift a finger, though most of them ‘looked anxious’, so they were definitely paying attention. We assume the majority of them shuffled out quickly and quietly when the researcher returned – interesting to speculate about how many stuck around to find out they’d been social guinea pigs.

5. Third graders given artificial prejudices

Brown and blue eyed children living in harmony. What a wonderful world!

Brown and blue eyed children living in harmony. What a wonderful world!

The day after Martin Luther King was shot, third grade teacher Jane Elliott was struggling to make her entirely white class understand the nature of racism. She designed a genius way of making them understand the concept on an empathetic, rather than purely academic level.

She divided the class into those with brown eyes, and those with blue eyes, explaining to them that scientifically speaking, the blue-eyed humans are more intelligent than their brown-eyed rivals. Not only that, but to match their superiority, the blue-eyed youths would get extra privileges: second helpings of lunch, access to the jungle gym and five minutes extra time at recess.

The transformation was staggering: not only did the blue eyed children become more arrogant and bossy to their brown-eyed members of their class, they also started performing better academically than they had previously. The brown-eyed children’s behavior also changed: they became timid, and performed markedly worse.

A few days later, Elliott flipped the experiment telling the children she had the information wrong, and things quickly reversed. Years later, the children felt positively affected by the experiment, insisting it made them more empathetic and sensitive. We just hope the ones who improved their academic performance held onto their gains once they realized that their eyes didn’t define their destiny.

Photos: Zadorozhnyi Viktor/Shutterstock.com,  Karramba Production/Shutterstock.com, Sakhorn/Shutterstock.comV. Belov/Shutterstock.com, luanateutzi/Shutterstock.com, UbjsP/Shutterstock.com

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