Seven Examples of Field Experiments for Sociology

Details of the Hawthorne experiment, Rosenthal and Jacobsens’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment, and the Stanford experiment, and some more contemporary popular examples up to 2014.

Last Updated on June 12, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Field experiments aren’t the most widely used research method in Sociology, but the examiners seem to love asking questions about them – below are seven examples of this research method.

Looked at collectively, the results of the field experiments below reveal punishingly depressing findings about human action –  they suggest that people are racist, sexist, shallow, passive, and prepared to commit violence when ordered to do so by authority figures.

The experiments are outlined in the form of a timeline, with the most recent first providing contemporary examples of field experiments, and those towards the end the more classic examples I’m sure everyone’s has heard of (Rosenthal and Jacobsen for example).

2014 – The Domestic Abuse in the Lift Experiment

A Swedish social experiment recently showed only one person of 53 reacting to what seemed like a scene of domestic abuse in a lift.

Researchers set up a hidden camera in a lift while members of the group played an abusive boyfriend and his victim. The male actors swore at the women and physically assaulted them while members of the public were in the lift

Most of the lift’s passengers ignored the abuse, while only one out of 53 people intervened in an attempt to stop it.

The experiment was organised by  STHLM Panda, which describes itself as “doing social experiments, joking with people and documenting the society we live in”.

2010 – The Ethnicity/ Gender and Bike Theft Experiment

In this experiment two young male actors, dressed in a similar manner, one white the other black take it in turns to act out stealing a bike which is chained to a post in a public park. The two actors (one after the other) spend an hour hacksawing/ bolt-cuttering their way through the bike lock (acting this out several times over) as about 100 people walk by in each case.

The findings – when the white actor acts out the bike-theft, only 1/100 step in and take immediate action. Several people actually casually ask ‘is that your bike’, but just laugh it off when the actor tells them it isn’t.

When the black actor acts out the same thing, within seconds, a crowd of people has gathered to stop him, with many whipping out their mobiles to phone the police. When the experiment is reset, the same thing happens again.

Towards the end of the film, a third actor steps in – an attractive young, blonde female – people actually help her to steal the bike!

This experiment seems to have quite good reliability – there are some examples of similar experiments which get similar results…

The ‘Social Misfits’ experiment where a white guy then a black guy act out a car theft on a public road – the white guy lasts 30 mins and ‘no one cares’, but not so with the black-guy.

2009 – The Ethnicity and Job Application Experiment

Researchers sent nearly 3,000 job applications under false identities in an attempt to discover if employers were discriminating against jobseekers with foreign names.

X – Boleslav would be twice as likely to get an interview if he called himself Brian

They found that an applicant who appeared to be white would send 9 applications before receiving a positive response of either an invitation to an interview or an encouraging telephone call. Minority candidates with the same qualifications and experience had to send 16 applications before receiving a similar response.

Researchers from the National Centre for Social Research, commissioned by the Department for Work and Pension (DWP), sent three different applications for 987 actual vacancies between November 2008 and May 2009. Using names recognisably from three different communities – Nazia Mahmood, Mariam Namagembe and Alison Taylor – false identities were created with similar experience and qualifications. Every false applicant had British education and work histories.  Nine occupations were chosen, ranging from highly qualified positions such as accountants and IT technicians to less well-paid positions such as care workers and sales assistants.  

All the job vacancies were in the private, public and voluntary sectors and were based in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, London and Manchester. The report concludes that there was no plausible explanation for the difference in treatment found between white British and ethnic minority applicants other than racial discrimination.

It also found that public sector employers were less likely to have discriminated on the grounds of race than those in the private sector (a handy argument against privatisation and neoliberalism here, at least if you’re not racist!)

2008 – The £5 Note Theft and Social Disorder Experiment

In this (slightly bizarre sounding) experiment an envelope containing a £5 note was left poking out a letterbox, in such a way that the £5 note was easily visible. The researchers did this first of all with a tidy garden, and later on (similar time of day) with litter in the garden – on the first occasion 13% of people took the envelope, on the second, the percentage doubled to 25% – suggesting that signs of physical disorder such as littering encourage deviant behaviour.

broken windows theory

The experiment was actually a bit more complex – for the full details see the Keizer et al source below – this was also actually one of six experiments designed to test out Wilson and Kelling’s 1996 ‘broken windows theory’.

1971 – The Stanford Prison Experiment

In which college students take on the role of either prison guards or prisoners and spend time in an artificial prison. The Stanford Prison Experiment was meant to last 14 days, it had to be stopped after just six because the ‘guards’ became abusive and the ‘prisoners’ began to show signs of extreme stress and

In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set out to create an experiment that looked at the impact of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The researchers set up a mock prison in the basement of Standford University’s psychology building, and then selected 24 undergraduate students to play the roles of both prisoners and guards.

The simulated prison included three six by nine foot prison cells. Each cell held three prisoners and included three cots. Other rooms across from the cells were utilized for the prison guards and warden. One very small space was designated as the solitary confinement room, and yet another small room served as the prison yard.

The 24 volunteers were then randomly assigned to either the prisoner group or the guard group. Prisoners were to remain in the mock prison 24-hours a day for the duration of the study. Guards, on the other hand, were assigned to work in three-man teams for eight-hour shifts. After each shift, guards were allowed to return to their homes until their next shift. Researchers were able to observe the behavior of the prisoners and guards using hidden cameras and microphones.

While the prisoners and guards were allowed to interact in any way they wanted, the interactions were generally hostile or even dehumanizing. The guards began to behave in ways that were aggressive and abusive toward the prisoners, while the prisoners became passive and depressed. Five of the prisoners began to experience such severe negative emotions, including crying and acute anxiety, that they had to be released from the study early.

The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates the powerful role that the situation can play in human behaviour. Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not normally act in their everyday lives or in other situations. The prisoners, placed in a situation where they had no real control, became passive and depressed.

1968 – Rosenthal and Jacobson’s ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecy’ Experiment

The aim of this research was to isolate and measure the effect of high teacher expectation on the educational performance of pupils.

Self fulfilling prophecy

Rosenthal and Jacobson carried out their research in a California primary school they called ‘Oak School’. Pupils were given an IQ test and on the basis of this R and J informed teachers that 20% of the pupils were likely ‘spurt’ academically in the next year. In reality, however, the 20% were randomly selected.

All of the pupils were re-tested 8 months later and he spurters had gained 12 IQ points compared to an average of 8.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen concluded that higher teacher expectations were responsible for this difference in achievement, providing supporting evidence for labelling theory and the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

1924-32 The Hawthorne Factory Experiments

The Hawthorne Electricity Factory Works  in Chicago commissioned a study to see if their workers would become more productive in response to various changes in their working environment – such as lighting levels, cleanliness of the factory and relocating work stations.

The workers’ productivity seemed to improve with any changes made, and slumped when the study ended. It was suggested that the productivity gain occurred because the workers were more motivated due to the increased interest being shown in them during the experiments.

The study gave rise to the term ‘The Hawthorne Effect’ which refers to any short-term changes in behaviour which result from participants knowing they are taking part in an experiment (rather than changes in behaviour being a result of changes to independent variables).

NB – As the video outlines, this study was huge – really more than just a ‘field experiment’ it involved the workers being interviewed about their feelings about work. 

Related Posts 

Field Experiments in Sociology – covers the strengths and limitations of the method

An Introduction to Experiments – covering key terms related to experiments, such as hypotheses, and dependent and independent variables.

Field Experiments are an important research method within sociology.


Swedish social experiment shows people ignoring domestic abuse in a lift – The Guardian

Double standard bike thief experiment highlights racism – The Root

Undercover job hunters reveal huge race bias in Britain’s workplaces – The Guardian

Keizer et al – The Spreading of Disorder – Science Express Report

The Stanford Prison Experiment – The official web site of the experiment (possibly the only experiment that’s also a celebrity?!)

The Pygmalion Effect (details of Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study) – Wikipedia

The Hawthorne Effect – Wikipedia

6 thoughts on “Seven Examples of Field Experiments for Sociology”

  1. Many are but there is overlap between psychology and sociology, there are so few within sociology we have to draw on our sister subject!

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