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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1999
Classic Studies Revisited
Mitchell M. Handelsman, University of Colorado at Denver
Joseph J. Palladino, University of Southern Indiana

Psychology professors hate it when students read second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts of the classic research studies in psychology. Students, of course, don't want to read anything that was published before Clinton was elected (the second time), but professors realize how vital it is to read and undfirstand the classics. Why is it so important? First, even the classics are misrepresented in secondary sources. Second, more recent findings in psychology continue to build on the firm foundation provided by the classics. Third, newer research, including methodological innovations, can only be undfirstood in the context of the classics.

Because of (a) the great potential for misundfirstanding that exists, (b) our love both for the classic studies and newer developments, and (c) the fact that we couldn't think of anything else to write about, we feel it our duty to set you straight on the true meaning of psychology's classic research.

Some Misunderstandings About the Classics
Just a couple of examples of how the classics are misundfirstood should strike fear into the hearts of serious psychology students. Did you realize, for example, that Pavlov did not originate the concept of conditioned reflexes? In reality he patterned his studies after those of Dave Thomas, who could make his daughter Wendy salivate at the sight of hamburgers, frosties, fries, etc. Both Thomas and Pavlov conditioned their participants to salivate to stimuli that did not contain meat: Pavlov used a bell as a conditioned stimulus; Thomas used Wendy's hamburgers.

The split-brain studies originated by Roger Sperry have stimulated lots of research, but the original studies have been severely misrepresented. They did NOT find, as usually reported, that people are either left- or right-brained. In fact, the two cortical lobes that most accurately represented the split were the "leno" and "letterman" lobes. At the time, of course, Sperry and his colleagues had no idea of what their results meant. They did not realize how far ahead of their time they were.

You should know that researchers have gone back and watched the original videotapes of Bandura's famous "Bobo doll" study, in which it was thought that children imitated violence they saw on TV by attacking the dolls. In fact, in 79.75% of the cases, it was the Bobo dolls who started the fights! This finding is evidently the reason that the sale of Bobo dolls has been banned by Federal law, while TV violence goes unchecked.

Finally, most people believe they undfirstand the original bystander intervention studies and results. However, it is not generally known that Latane and Darley actually never finished analyzing the results of their studies. The reality is that their car broke down on the way to the computer center and they're still waiting for somebody to stop and give them a lift.

New Results From the Classic Paradigms
Speaking of the bystander intervention studies: New research has revealed large geographic variations in this effect. On the East Coast, for example, virtually everybody will help by getting other people to come to the scene of a problem, but not until after they've sold the folks tickets to watch. On the West Coast, the number of observers is no longer related to the likelihood of helping; the more important variable is the number of home video cameras. The more cameras, the less likely anybody will intervene. However, the indirect benefit to victims increases, as they get to share the $10,000 offered by Hard Copy.

Lawrence Kohlberg found wide variations in moral reasoning based on age and level of moral reasoning. He found, for example, that not everyone reaches the postconventional level of reasoning, the highest level. In fact, just Kohlberg and a few of his friends have ever reached that level. However, more recent research has found that the preconventional, conventional, and postconventional levels are obsolete. These have been replaced by the pre-grand-jury, grand-jury, and post-grand-jury levels. And the original stimulus material of Heinz stealing the drug to save his wife has been modified. The moral dilemma now is whether Heinz should or should not wear the Nike "swoosh" on the track suit he wears on the Oprah! and Jerry Springer shows he appears on to promote his new book.

Imprinting studies have also been updated. It has been found that there is a critical period after which men will not follow Madonna and women will not follow Mel Gibson.

Finally, Schachter's obesity studies have been combined with Piaget's conservation studies with some very interesting results. For instance, it has been found that people gain more weight when they eat a candy bar that has been broken in half than do people who eat the same amount of candy without breaking it in half. They also report having eaten more candy.

Methodological Variations on Classic Themes
Memory experiments are still being conducted a la Ebbinghaus, except instead of nonsense syllables, participants are given lists of members of the House Judiciary Committee.

Consumer psychology is a very new subfield of psychology, and does not have any classic studies of its own. However, consumer psychologists have already learned from the classics of neuropsychology. In fact, some of the same researchers who used to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain are now implanting electrodes in the shopping centers of the brain.

In a similar vein, Gibson's visual cliff experiments have been replaced by virtual cliff studies, in which students are presented with a computer that looks like it cannot access the World Wide Web. Just as the babies in the original studies, students would cry at the apparent cliff and the impossibility of making contact. These results have important implications for whether Web surfing has a genetic basis.

We are all familiar with the ethical problems inherent in the Zimbardo prison studies. Our society has advanced to the extent that you can no longer randomly assign students to be prisoners and jailors. But this does not mean that the classic methodology has not been updated and made more ethical. Now, such research is being done with mental health professionals. The prisoners are clinical psychologists and the jailors are managed-care case managers. No problem!

Finally, it must be noted that financial considerations have also influenced how the classics have been modified. Because of dwindling grant money, researchers need to save money, and they have been very creative. For example, one way to save money is to combine different types of studies. This has been done with several of the classic streams of research. For example, studies including Milgram's obedience, Gibson's visual cliff, Kohlberg's moral development, and Latane and Darley's bystander intervention have all been combined. Participants are asked to be "teachers" and to help "learners" with a visual cliff task. However, to make the dilemma more moral, teachers are asked to push participants off a real cliff rather than a visual one. And, of course, there are either a few or many people at the bottom of the cliff deciding if they're going to help. And, of course, participants were paid either $1 or $20 . . .


Copyright 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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