Monday, January 19, 2009

My Personal Brand of Hot Science

Psych Post Doc recently responded to a question I posed regarding what sparked her initial interest in psychology, and I decided to answer the question myself here. 

What brought me to psychology when I was around 12 years old was simple - my whole family is fucking nuts and I wanted to find out why. I read an intro to psych college textbook from cover to cover in the 7th grade and was hooked. (Granted, the text was printed in the 60's but it was still really cool and most of that stuff is still in current texts.) From that point on I knew I wanted to go to college to study psych. 

The more interesting (to me) portion of the story is why I chose social psychology as my sub-field. I didn't really want to go into clinical because the only thing I find really cool about clinical is the really obscure mental disorders - Dissociative Identity Disorder (the artist formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), anyone? That shit is cool, but very, very rare and difficult to study. I had a short-lived fascination with criminal and forensic psychology until I realized that I just don't have the stomach for it. Working directly with criminals has to wear on you after awhile, not to mention resulting in some OCD-type door-locking behaviors that I just don't need in my life. I slept with the lights on for a month (at 22 years old) after reading a true-crime novel about sexual murderers written by a former FBI criminal profiler. 

Developmental is interesting, but if I wanted to work with kids all day I'd be a teacher. If I wanted to work with the elderly all day I'd work in a nursing home. I'd be interested in it until I had kids and they grew up, and then it would fizzle out. So that was a no go. Cognitive psychology is booooorrrring. The experiments are SO tedious and mundane. (Memorizing lists of words, eye-tracking tasks, sinewave speech, etc.) Those are really the big fields in psych, everything else tends toward the sub-sub-fields.

So what made me say, "Holy shit! Social psych is for ME!"?

The Stanford Prison Experiment by Dr. Philip Zimbardo. (THE MAN)

Zimbardo's name itself is contraversial in psychology because his experiment is one of the huge factors that contributed to the formation of IRB's. Any of you who have ever had to go through human subjects research ethics training probably know this name, along with that of Dr. Stanley Milgram. 

Before I get into my description of the study, I would like to recommend the following book to any of you who are interested in the "dark side" of human nature:

Fig 1: The Lucifer Effect by Dr. Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo took a bunch of undergrad males, "normal" as defined by a battery of psychological scales, randomly assigned them to the roles of prison guard or prisoner, and stuck them into a specially designed prison replica built in the basement of one of Stanford's buildings. Zimbardo himself took on the role of warden. 

I won't get into all the details, you'll have to read the book for that. But basically, the experiment had to be shut down within a matter of days because the young men who had been placed in the roles of prison guards began to physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually abuse the prisoners. 

Yes, sexually. 

It turned out to be, arguably, one of the most unethical experiments in history. But hindsight is 20/20, and there was really no precedent or reason to believe that it would turn out like this. His findings were, essentially, accidental. 

But this experiment begged the question: "What makes good people do really bad things?"

They were not encouraged to do any of the things they did to these prisoners. That wasn't the point of the study. They took it upon themselves to engage in abuse. Why???

Still, no one really knows. Zimbardo posits that the combined effects of a lack of clear authority, dehumanization and depersonalization of the prisoners, and an "us vs them" mentality are to blame. 

When the Abu Ghraib scandal came down, Zimbardo was able to offer explanations for what happened to our "good men and women" who abused those prisoners. This comprises the second half of his book. 

Social psychology is built on the foundation of "person + situation." There are aspects of human behavior that personality psychology just can't explain because individual differences can go out the window when the situation is manipulated. THIS is what fascinated me about social psychology. 

Although Zimbardo's work is not what I intend to pursue in graduate school (he retired last year otherwise I'd be all over him like white on rice), it cemented my interest in this sub-field. Things like the Bystander Effect, Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiments all contributed to my fascination with human nature as a whole. 

And now, a small rant....

The (in my opinion) BEST psychological research has stemmed from studies that were entirely unethical. Those studies have contributed the most to the field and now we are largely "stuck" in terms of what we can discover about human beings. The experiments that have the potential to answer "real" questions about human behavior cannot be executed in this day and age because of ethical concerns. For example, B. F. Skinner (or was it Watson...?) said that you could give him any infant and he could raise it in a lab to be anything he wanted it to be - a scientist, an artist, a musician, a criminal - resulting in a true study of the relationship between nature and nurture. But it can't be done. 

I'm not saying we should go ahead and do unethical experiments, but the field as a whole is very limited in our experimental power. In my undergrad research class I wanted to replicate the Bystander Effect by having a confederate pretend to faint (we wanted to look for gender differences in responses by participants) and I was told by the IRB that it might "traumatize" my participants. 

Really? They did it on Dr. Phil!

So my small rant is going to end with this: It is one thing to maintain ethical standards for research in order to protect human subjects, but restricting research capacities to protect institutions from possible (illegitimate) lawsuits hurts scientific inquiry. 

Unfortunately, JLK (or anyone else) will never be able to continue Zimbardo's line of research. 


daedalus2u said...

An idea, but some of those experiments might be doable in a virtual world like Second Life. The results might not be directly applicable to reality, but some aspects might be.

Psych Post Doc said...

SPE is one of my favorites too, especially to teach because students get it.

Two things:
IRB's- I find that it's really institution specific. Some take their job way too far and I've even heard of IRBs taking it so far as to ask why the PI was asking specific questions in their studies as they seemed not related to the topic at hand!

I disagree with this statement:
Unfortunately, JLK (or anyone else) will never be able to continue Zimbardo's line of research.

Sure you won't be able to randomly assign people to be prisoners and guards in Stanford's basement, but you wouldn't want to do that anyway cause it's already been done. But, you can manipulate situations and see how people respond to them. It's all about being creative. That's what I love about experimental psychology.

PhizzleDizzle said...

I took Social Psych in college and I LOOOOOOVED it. Seriously. Loved. It. It was the coolest class ever. You know someone just re-did the Milgram Experiment (Lite)? I read about it somewhere, not the actual study but some media summarization. Anyway, that's some cool shit yo.

leigh said...

very cool to see how you picked up interest in your subject matter. sometimes it's just that one thing you read about and something clicks in your head- "i wanna DO this totally awesome shit!"

i can identify with your rant, but on the iacuc (animal use) committee side instead of the human subjects side. sometimes the reviews seem so irrational.

Labness said...

If anyone is interested, there is a cool Canadian podcast about the Lucifer effect, and the link to recent scandals here:

I am in hardcore bioscience, but I am addicted to a good number of lecture series on SocSocPsych. That gets me through the day of loooong commutes. The studies are similar in concept to biology, but in more human-sized morsels.

Do you know of any good podcasts?

DuWayne Brayton said...

What brought me to psychology when I was around 12 years old was simple - my whole family is fucking nuts and I wanted to find out why.

What developed my interest in psych, around thirteen, was the realization that I'm fucking nuts and I wanted to understand why. This only intensified when, as an adult, it occurred to me that my (now ex-)partner and mother of my kids suffers from fairly severe mental issues. And of course my oldest (I suspect the one yr old is only in the clear now due to his age) has pretty significant issues as well, thanks to the genetic and environmental contributions of his parents.

I decided I want to focus on addiction, addiction research in particular, because I have a whole hella lot of personal experience with substance abuse and general addictions. I am pretty absolute in my belief that our social and political addiction paradigm is fundamentally and fatally flawed. And being a rather exceptionally arrogant son of a bitch, I firmly believe that I can make a valuable contribution to the development of a new one. I also figure that said contribution will probably be even better during and after a more formalized education - especially when I get to grad school and dive into neuropsychology with a gusto.

But underlying my desire to go into addiction studies and research, is the assumption that my children are going to be faced with their own addiction issues. I am doing everything I can, yes even now with the seven year old, to prepare them for the future. But it would be extremely naive of me to assume that anything I do will prevent them from having problems.

All that said, I am kind of excited to be fresh undergrad. I have all sorts of the big fun ahead of me, including social psych, that I know I will miss as I get more and more specialized in my studies.

Although I have to take exception to the notion that cognitive psych is boring:) Personally, I find it just as fascinating as social psych. Maybe because it's relatively easy for me, but the relatively normative mind is fascinating to me, because the distinctions are so fine.

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