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Investigating Psychology Classic Studies Research Essay

Examine and assess the ways in which the classic studies discussed in Chapters 2, 4 and 8 of Investigating Psychology influenced subsequent psychological research.

Certain psychological studies are termed ‘classics’ as they’ve become renowned for the influence or contribution that they’ve made to particular areas of psychology. This essay looks in detail at such studies, carried out by Milgram, Skinner and Broadbent, with a view to assessing the value of their influences on subsequent psychological research. This essay aims to demonstrate how these studies have largely been influential and valuable as a result of their strengths, but will also demonstrate that a weakness within the structure of a study can also be influential. B.F. Skinner is considered to be one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century (Brace and Byford, 2012). His work on behaviour shaping and theory of operant conditioning is still influential today. Skinner believed that behaviour could be influenced through manipulation such as reinforcement, and controversially believed that thought processes and free will play no part in determining behaviour. To test his theories he experimented with rats and pigeons. He created the ‘Skinner box’ which meant that the animals’ behaviour could scientifically and objectively be measured. This was an influential and important development that enabled future studies to be carried out under tight controls. Skinner argued that learning through reinforcement could be successfully extended to humans (Toates, 2012).

Subsequent research studies have been carried out testing the sustained influence of Skinners theory of reinforcement, and supporting its validity and value. Studies by Swinson and Harrop, 2005 (cited in Toates, 2012) support that challenging behaviour in the classroom can be reduced using positive reinforcement. E.g. a child receives praise for desired behaviours, rather than receiving attention for undesirable behaviour. Therefore Skinner’s classical study has had a positive influence in relation to behaviour in education. Furthermore there is evidence from therapeutic settings (Flora 2004), (cited in Toates, 2012) including mental hospitals, showing that children and adults have been successfully modified for psychological issues such as self-harming, using therapies derived from Skinner’s studies. These techniques of reinforcement are being used today in many hospitals, schools and prisons. (Toates, 2012).

However, aspects of Skinner’s theory of behaviourism, displayed weaknesses and as such is not favoured in psychology today. Most psychologists retain the view that free will is instrumental to behaviour and how we learn, believing that our ability to make choices is influenced by factors other than operant conditioning alone. This was a view rejected by Skinner (Toates, 2012). This aspect of behaviourism has had little influence on subsequent research other than to refute it. Nevertheless Skinners work on operant conditioning remains influential, and is used by many professionals (Cherry, 2013).

Furthermore, the work of David Broadbent has been greatly influential and valuable, the evidence of which continues to be seen in research today. Broadbent’s work has contributed to our understanding of attention. He invented the modern study of attention, introducing and making popular the ‘information-processing’ approach which launched the cognitive revolution. This approach was the first testable model of attention and Broadbent was keen that others carried out experiments to test it (Edgar and Edgar 2012). He believed that psychological theory should come from considering practical problems, and with this approach he bridged the gap between the laboratory and the real-world (Berry, 2002, p.403). Broadbent’s model displayed that we have limited capacity to how much information we can process at one time, and as such this affects our abilities to multi-task etc. (Edgar and Edgar, 2012). This has implications on everyday tasks such as driving.

This proved extremely valuable information with regards to researching cognitive abilities in humans, and is still used in cognitive psychology today. Colin Cherry was a contemporary of Broadbent’s, whose research extended that of Broadbent’s to explore the role of ‘meaning’ in attention. Cherry’s (1953) findings showed that meaning does play a role in information-processing and as a consequence Broadbent’s original model needed to be modified in a way that recognised memory, experience and expectations can influence attention. These findings generated refinements to the model, raised further specific questions and generated hypothesis which have been, and continue to be tested by carefully designed experiments. This process is known as the “Cycle of Enquiry”. Broadbent’s research regarding attention and multi-tasking influenced Ivan Brown et al. (1960), (cited in Edgar and Edgar, 2012) to conduct studies into the effects on driving whilst using a mobile ‘phone.

This study is an excellent example and evidence of hypothesis testing. There were certain elements applied to the experiment to ensure a valid test of the hypothesis: Performance or ‘dependent variables’ were measured by speed/accuracy; the two ‘conditions’ were driving without using a ‘phone, and driving the same route whilst answering questions using a ‘phone. The ‘conditions’ arose from manipulating the ‘independent’ variable’ – the use of a ‘phone or not. Other variables were controlled to ensure that the only influence on the result of the study was the variable being measured. The finding of the experiment supported Broadbent’s views regarding attention and multi-tasking. The value that the ‘cycle of enquiry’ adds to subsequent psychological research is immeasurable, as it ensures research is constantly open to re-evaluation. Over time and with the advent of technology, research performed by Broadbent has influenced studies using fMRI which have been able to ‘see’ how attention is depicted in brain activity. Findings were consistent with Broadbent’s theory of limited capacity (Sabine Kastner et. al. (1998) cited in Edgar and Edgar 2012). Broadbent’s methodical approach to experimental research and theory development were the origins of subsequent psychological research.

As such he was instrumental in the development of cognitive psychology. (Edgar and Edgar 2012). Equally influential on psychological research is Milgram’s studies into obedience from authorities’ (1961), which was provoked by the atrocities of the Second World War. The studies investigated whether volunteers would administer potential lethal electrical shocks to another human because they were told to by an ‘authoritative figure’. The findings were alarming in that most people were willing to administer the shocks on the instruction of ‘someone in authority.’ It was these findings that provoked much debate and influenced attempts at replications of the original study. Weaknesses of the study included it being conducted in a single geographical area, using same gender participants, and not being carried out in a real-world environment. In order to address the issue of gender, Milgram himself replicated his study using only females, with the results showing that women were just as likely as men to give the shocks (Banyard, 2012). With regards to culture and geography, Milgram’s study was replicated in many countries and the results were analysed by Peter Smith and Michael Bond (1993), (cited in Banyard, 2012). The findings were that varying degrees of obedience were displayed by different cultures.

To test the theory in a real-world environment, a replication was carried out in a work environment by Charles Hofling et.al. (1996), (cited in Banyard, 2012) to see if nurses would give patients an overdose of a drug on the instruction of a telephone call from a Doctor. The drugs were ‘dummies’ and the Doctor a fake. The request broke hospital protocol but alarmingly a very high percentage of nurses followed the Doctors instruction. However, it’s not just the findings regarding human behaviour that have been greatly influential, but a significant weakness of the study has been equally so. The first code of ethics, The Nuremberg Code, was devised in 1946 as a response to the atrocities carried out during the Second World War. Many people disapproved of Milgram’s obedience studies as they felt that it was ethically wrong. One such psychologist was Diana Baumrind who felt Milgram had broken certain aspects of the code of ethics (Banyard, 2012). She believed that the participants hadn’t been treated properly as their welfare had been compromised due to the extreme stress they had encountered; they weren’t able to give informed consent; the emotional cost to the participants wasn’t worth the benefit of the study, and participants weren’t able to exercise their right to withdraw.

Furthermore, she argued that Milgram had harmed the public image of psychology. The value of this to subsequent research is that the obedience study demonstrated why ethics is so important in psychology, and highlighted the need for strict guidelines in research (Banyard, 2012). These very concerns regarding ethics would make it difficult to replicate the original study today. However, the development of technology has enabled replications of the study to be carried out in a virtual environment (Mel Slater et.al 2006, cited in Banyard 2012). The findings were similar to that of the original study. However you measure Milgram’s impact, whether it’s in terms of obedience, ethics or human behaviour, he remains one of the most influential Social Psychologists of our time. (Banyard, 2012).

To conclude, having looked in detail at the classic studies, the evidence supplied clearly demonstrates that they’ve had a significant and valuable influence on subsequent psychological research. The influence that they’ve had and the high value to research are evident throughout history. However, it is also important to note that these studies do also display weaknesses; there are elements which have been challenged, offer no value, and have had no significant influence on subsequent research. This is however, over shadowed by the body of evidence presented that outline the many ways in which the classical studies have influenced subsequent psychological research and continue to do so. (1553 words).

References:

Banyard, P. (2012) ‘Just Following Orders?’ in Brace, N. and Byford, J. (eds) Investigating Psychology, Oxford, Oxford University press/Milton Keynes, The Open University. Berry, D. (2012) The Psychologist, vol.15, no.8 22 August [Online]. Available at www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm/volumeID_15-edition_83-ArticleID_437-getfile-getPDF/thepsychologist/aug02berry.pdf) (Accessed 14 August 2013) Brace, N. and Byford, J. (eds) Investigating Psychology, Oxford, Oxford University press/Milton Keynes, The Open University. Cherry, K. (2013) http://psychology.about.com/od/profileofmajorthinkers/p/bio_skinner.htm (Accessed 14 August 2013) Edgar, H. and Edgar, G. (2012) ‘Paying Attention’ in Brace, N. and Byford, J. (eds) Investigating Psychology, Oxford, Oxford University press/Milton Keynes, The Open University. Toates, F. (2012. ‘Changing Behaviour’ in Brace, N. and Byford, J. (eds) Investigating Psychology, Oxford, Oxford University press/Milton Keynes, The Open University.


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