To call some of the most famous psychology experiments of all time scary would be an understatement. The Monster Study, Little Albert Experiment, and Stanford Prison Experiment are some of the most shocking and provocative studies ever conducted. Though they’ve captivated psychologists for decades, studies like these do little to accurately describe experimental psychologists or the important work they do.

What Is Experimental Psychology?

Experimental psychology or research psychology is devoted to the study of mental processes, emotions, and behavior by way of empirical research methods. All branches of psychology that collect data and conduct research on human and animal behavior are a part of experimental psychology, so in a way, all psychologists owe their profession to this inquisitive and innovative field.

Every worthwhile endeavor begins with an idea, and psychological science is no different. It starts with a hypothesis: a testable and tentative explanation regarding the relationship between two or more variables. For example, Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov hypothesized that dogs experienced a physical response (conditional reflex) upon seeing or hearing something they associated with food (conditional stimulus). To test his hypothesis, Pavlov developed an objective way to measure a dog’s salivary and digestive secretions once it had associated food with a precise stimulus, such as the tick of a metronome. This manipulation of variables to establish cause-and-effect relationships is at the foundation of experimental psychology.

The Frightening History of Experimental Psychology
Pavlov’s dog is often depicted salivating to the sound of a bell, a stimulus too imprecise for such an experiment. This is one of the more innocuous changes made in the retelling of Pavlov’s research. In reality, the treatment endured by his dogs would cause public outrage today. (We won’t go into detail, but Pavlov went to great lengths to measure digestive fluids.) By all accounts, Pavlov was an unpleasant man, and the experiments he conducted give credence to experimental psychology’s reputation for being cruel or inhumane, but his work at the turn of the 20th century provided the basis for much of what experimental psychology is today.

Learning From Past Mistakes.
Pavlov’s research was some of the first in experimental psychology to blur the lines between progress and recklessness, but it was by no means the last. Although experimental methods were being developed and utilized as early as the 1880s, the 1950s and 1960s were a seemingly lawless time in this field of psychology. Many of the most famous (or infamous) behavioral and social experiments conducted during these years would never receive approval today. Some like the Syphilis Study at Tuskegee can hardly be called experiments due to their unethical methods and meager results. This study, in particular, led to the formation of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in 1974 and the development of ethical standards that now protect the rights and welfare of human subjects.

Experimental Psychology Today
Interested in testing a hypothesis through research? Today, your research proposal must go through a rigorous approval process conducted by an institutional review board (IRB), a federally mandated group review composed of volunteers. Your study will gain approval if and only if it’s deemed ethical by the IRB. You’ll also need to abide by the American Psychology Association’s (APA) Ethics Code. Notably, Principle A of the APA’s Ethics Code states that psychologists must “strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm.”

“Be Here Now: Perceptions of Uncertainty Enhance Savoring” contains two recent IRB-approved studies that netted impactful results without subjecting participants to undue duress. In one of these experiments, participants were handed fliers that said, “Life is unpredictable: Stop and smell the roses,” or “Life is constant: Stop and smell the roses” before being presented with a small wooden table with a bouquet of red roses. Those who were reminded of life’s unpredictability were over twice as likely to stop and smell the roses, adding to growing evidence that negative experiences help people to appreciate positives in the present moment.

Not long ago, psychology presented scientists with a new frontier to explore, where the answers to some of life’s greatest mysteries awaited. Many scientists in the past ventured into the unknown with reckless abandon, but modern safeguards are now in place to prevent the past from repeating itself.

So, is experimental psychology scary? That’s for you to decide. We can, however, tell you that the first step on a journey is often the scariest.

Psychology Is What You Make of It
The University of Texas Permian Basin offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program that will help you start your career in psychology. Our program provides a foundational understanding of psychological science and research, covering such topics as observational, correlational, and experimental research methodologies. As a student, you’ll develop an in-depth understanding of empirical research and the theoretical and applied aspects of psychology. You’ll also explore the major branches of psychology, including abnormal, cognitive, physiological, developmental, and social psychology, giving you a clearer idea of what to do with your career.

However, if you’re unsure of your career path, the knowledge imparted in our program can prove invaluable not only in psychology but in many other professional fields.

UT Permian Basin’s online BA in psychology program is an opportunity to bring positive change to your life, the lives of others, and the field of psychology. Apply now to take the first step in becoming a psychology professional.