Over the years, psychologists have come up with some ingenious experiments to advance their efforts to study human behavior. But sometimes, researchers’ creativity can get the better of them.
Here are some of the oddest psychological experiments ever conducted:
The urinal study.
This study looked at how the presence of other people in a men’s bathroom caused negative arousal, and affected performance—of urination! The dependent measure in this study was the time that it took for the stream of urine to begin flowing. The independent (manipulated) variable was the presence or absence of another person at the adjacent urinal. How did the researchers measure onset of urination? An observer was stationed in a nearby stall with a periscope so that he could observe the onset of urine flow! The study was designed to see how invasion of personal space affected people, but it sounds like a major invasion of privacy itself.
The pigeon-guided missile study.
During World War II, the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner trained pigeons to peck at images of approaching bombing targets on a steering mechanism in an effort to better guide missiles in flight as they approached their destinations. The U.S. government actually gave Skinner a $25,000 grant to fund the research, but it was never deployed and so, as far as we know, no pigeons were actually harmed or killed from this study.
The Good Samaritan helping study.
In this famous study of helping behavior, seminary students were recruited to give a sermon on the biblical Good Samaritan story at a certain venue across campus from their classroom. (You'll recall that the Samaritan stops to help an injured stranger on the road.) The researchers also varied the urgency/lateness of the request to speak (low, moderate, or high). On the way to the location, the seminarian participants encountered a (planted) person slumped in a doorway, moaning and in apparent need of help. In the high-urgency condition, only 10% of the speeding seminarians stopped to help, as opposed to 63% in the low-urgency condition. The obvious irony is that the topic of the sermon was about helping, and the hurried participants were unable to “practice what they preached.”
Menstrual synchrony studies.
The original study, published in the journal Nature in 1971, found that the menstrual cycles of women who lived together tended to synchronize. Presumably, pheromones caused the women to synch up. These results have become common knowledge despite the fact that no subsequent study has found conclusive evidence that the phenomenon exists.
We’ve all experienced it: Someone yawns and it seems to “make us” yawn ourselves. It's been suggested that the effect is empathy-related. However, research on contagious yawning has only definitively shown that it is age related (very young children, for example, don’t yawn contagiously). The jury is still out on the reasons and in this case, at least, more research is needed
Darley, J.M. & Batson, C.D. (1973). From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.
Middlemist, R., Knowles, E., & Matter, C. (1976). Personal space invasions in the lavatory: suggestive evidence for arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 541-546.