why it would have been awesome to have been a psychologist 50 years ago
a study investigating the role of differential visceral feedback on emotion was done using the preferred guinea pig of psychology, the undergraduate student. participants were connected to a shock generator, which, they were told, would deliver mild shocks as they completed a task. while their physiological response was measured, the participants watched helplessly as the generator started to spark and the experimenter panicked. once the student was fearing for his life, a second experimenter came into the room and blamed the him for breaking the machine and ruining the study. this was part two: induction of anger. eventually, the experimenter admitted that the generator wasn't really broken, the participant hadn't really almost died, and that the experiment was actually measuring the physiological arousal associated with fear and anger.
in another famous study, participants were told that they would be given a memory test to complete. with a partner, they would take turns learning a list of words while the other punished mistakes by giving shocks of increasing intensity. the participant was asked to be the first one to give the memory test and punishing shocks to his partner. before the experiment began, the partner - really a confederate of the experimenter - mentioned that he had a heart condition, but was assured that he would not be seriously harmed. occasional mistakes were made by the confederate as the participant tested him and gave the appropriate punishments. as the voltage of shocks increased, the confederate began to cry out with each delivery. "my heart, my heart!" he cried at one point. when the participant grew anxious, the experimenter instructed him to continue with the task. eventually, the partner stopped responding altogether. and the scary part? the vast majority of participants did continue. even as their partner screamed in pain and lapsed into unconsciousness, many continued delivering the highest voltage shocks the machine could give.
today, the field of experimental psychology has kicked the habit of messing with people's minds. studies are more likely to consist of the participant staring at a computer screen and pressing buttons while the experimenter's grad student does his reading across the room. the need to play with human guinea pigs rests unfulfilled and psychologists are left to sit in their labs and dream of better days.