Sociological Experiments

This post aims to provide some examples to some of the more unusual and interesting experiments that students can explore and evaluate.

I’ve already done a post on ‘seven field experiments‘, that outline seven of the most interesting classic and contemporary experiments which are relevant to various topics within the A-level sociology syllabus, in this post I provide a much fuller list, and try to present some more unusual examples, focusing on contemporary examples with video examples where possible.

The Circle

Channel Four’s ‘The Circle’ is an experiment of sorts – contestants have to stay in one room and can only interact with each other by a bespoke, in-house social media application, competing for popularity. At the end of every day the two-three most popular people get to kick out someone from the least three popular people, then a newbie comes in to replace them.

The Twinstitute

This recent series which aired on BBC2 involves getting identical twins to do the same tasks under different circumstances – to see what the effect of ‘external stimuli’ (independent variables) are on factors such as ‘concentration’.

In one classic, and super easy to relate to example, sets of twins are asked to do a written IQ test – one half are allowed to keep their mobile phones on the table, another have to put them away – all other variables remain the same. The findings are predictable – the group with their phones out get worse scores.

Conclusion – mobile phones are distracting, quite a useful fact to remind students of!

Sleep deprivation makes people less likely to want to socialise with you!

A 2017 experiment measured how respondents perceived tired people. The findings were that respondents were less likely to want to socialise with sleep-deprived people.

  • 25 Participants (aged 18-47) were photographed after normal sleep and again after two days of sleep deprivation.
  • The two photographs were then rated by 122 raters (aged 18-65), according to how much they would like to socialise with the participants. The raters also rated the photos based on attractiveness, health, sleepiness and trustworthiness.
  • The raters were less likely to want to socialise with the participants in the ‘sleep-deprived’ photos  compared to the photos of them when they’d had normal sleep. They also perceived the ‘sleep-deprived’ versions as less attractive, less health and more sleepy.
  • There was no difference in the trustworthiness ratings.

You have to think about this to get to what the variables are:

  • The main dependent variable is the raters’ ‘desire to socialise’ with the people in the photos.
  • The independent variable is the ‘level of sleep-deprivation’ (measured by photos)  

What I like about this experiment is the clear ‘control measure’ – the researchers used photos of the same participants – after regular sleep and sleep-deprivation.

Without that control measure, the experiment would probably fall apart1

Science Professors think female applicants are less competent

In this 2012 experiment researchers sent 127 science professors around the country (both male and female) the exact same application materials from a made-up undergraduate student applying for a lab manager position.

63 of the fake applications were made by a male, named John; the other 64 were made by a female, named Jennifer.

Every other element of the applications were identical.

The researchers also matched the two groups of professors to whom the applications were sent, in terms of age distribution, scientific fields, and tenure status.

The 127 professors were each asked to evaluate the application based on

  • their overall competency and hireability,
  • the salary they would offer to the student
  • the degree of mentoring they felt the student deserved.

The faculty were not told the purpose of the experiment, just that their feedback would be shared with the student.

The results

Both male and female professors consistently regarded the female student applicant as less competent and less hireable than the otherwise identical male student:

  • The average competency rating for the male applicant was 4.05, compared to 3.33 for the female applicant.
  • The average salary offered to the female was $26,507.94, while the male was offered $30,238.10.
  • The professor’s age and sex had insignificant effects on discrimination —old and young, male, and female alike tended to view the female applicants more negatively.

Blind auditions improve the chances of female musicians being recruited to orchestras

A comparative study by Cecilia Rouse, an associate professor in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University, seems to confirm the existence of sex-biased hiring by major symphony orchestras.

Traditionally, women have been underrepresented in American and European orchestras. Renowned conductors have asserted that female musicians have “smaller techniques,” are more temperamental and are simply unsuitable for orchestras, and some European orchestras do not hire women at all.

To overcome bias, most major U.S. orchestras implemented blind auditions in the 1970s to 1980s, in which musicians audition behind a screen that conceals their identities but does not alter sound. However, some kept non-blind auditions.

This provided the context for a nice ‘natural experiment’…

Using data from the audition records, the researchers found that:

  • – for both blind and non-blind auditions, about 28.6 percent of female musicians and 20.2 percent of male musicians advanced from the preliminary to the final round.
  • – When preliminary auditions were not blind, only 19.3 percent of the women advanced, along with 22.5 percent of the men.

The researchers calculated that blind auditions increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent.

As a result, blind auditions have had a significant impact on the face of symphony orchestras. About 10 percent of orchestra members were female around 1970, compared to about 35 percent in the mid-1990s.

Rouse and Goldin attribute about 30 percent of this gain to the advent of blind auditions.

Their report was published in the September-November issue of the American Economic Review.

The Marshmallow Test

This classic 1971 experiment was designed to measure a child’s level of self-control, or will-power. In sociological terms, this is measuring a child’s ability to ‘defer gratification’.

Researchers put a child in a room with one Marshmallow. The child was informed that they could eat it whenever they wanted, but if they could wait until the researcher returned, they could have two Marshmallows.

The researcher then left and the child was left alone to deal with their temptation for approximately 15 minutes. In the end 2/3rds of children gave into temptation and ate the Marshmallow, the other third resisted.

The researchers then tracked the children through later life and found that those who had more will power/ self control (those who hadn’t eaten the treat) were more likely to do well at school, avoid obesity and generally had a better quality of life.

NB – it’s down to you to do your research on how replicable and valid this experiment is.

Here’s one of the original researchers in 2015 saying how they’ve evolved and replicated the experiment and he’s written a book on the importance of teaching self-control to enhance people’s quality of life:

On the other hand, this is a video which is critical, saying that future studies found that social economic background accounted for around half of life-success, with individual will-power only accounting for half.

(However, this second video appears to be one young guy with no academic credentials, other than the lame bookshelf he’s put in the background, hardly semiotics genius.)

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