What is Experimental Psychology?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Experimental psychology is an approach to psychological research where people use experiments in controlled conditions to explore and test hypotheses about behavior. In addition to using classical experiments, people in this field may also rely on surveys, case studies, and other research methodologies to expand the scope and nature of their work. This discipline originated in Germany in the late 1800s, and examples can be seen all over the world.

One of the most infamous experimental psychology experiments, the Stanford Prison Experiment, was conducted at Stanford University in 1971.
One of the most infamous experimental psychology experiments, the Stanford Prison Experiment, was conducted at Stanford University in 1971.

In the larger field of psychology, people attempt to understand human behavior, including motivations, human development, and the way people act alone and in crowds. There are numerous branches of psychology covering a variety of topics, from researchers interested in neurology and the brain mechanics behind behavior to researchers following topics like mental illness. In experimental psychology, people set up controlled experimental conditions to test theories.

People can conduct experiments in a wide variety of settings. Researchers may stage a scene on a street or at an event to see how people react if they are interested in social psychology, or could use a controlled lab environment to study isolated behaviors to learn more about development, identity, and abnormal behavior. The experiment is overseen by researchers who log data and look out for the safety of participants, making sure no one is put at undue risk.

This work can involve animal and human subjects. Working with living subjects carries considerable ethical concerns, especially when those subjects are human beings. Some notorious events in the history of experimental psychology led to increased scrutiny of research, with better safeguards to protect subjects. One such example was the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, where researcher Philip Zimbardo wanted to explore how people adjust to roles as prisoners and prison guards. The simulation became so real and dangerous for participants that Zimbaro decided to suspend it before it ended, and in advance of a planned “prison break,” where friends of research subjects were planning to end the experiment by force.

When people design studies in experimental psychology, they explore the behavior they are trying to explain and try to create situational controls to isolate and study that behavior. They must be able to demonstrate how a study will contribute to the field of psychology, and must also show safeguards to protect the health and safety of participants. People who want to volunteer for an experimental psychology study must have the capacity for informed consent, understanding the nature of the experiment, their role, and how to opt out.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Moldova - I wanted to add that I think that a experimental psychology career would be really interesting. For example, you can really do an effective study on what motivates people and how different people learn and perceive certain things.

It is really amazing when you think about it. If you see a picture that looks like a lady to you, the same picture can look like an older man with a large nose to somebody else.

I wonder why that is? Clearly we all see things differently and have a different level of emotions associated with it.

I remember when I went to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, it was an emotional experience for me because I was in high school during his presidency and followed all of his policies back then.

His strong stance against communisum really resonated with me because of my Cuban heritage. However, there were other people that were there that did not have the connection that I felt and were merely looking at artifacts.


I think that experimental social psychology really looks at how people are influenced in a social setting. They measure their motivation for acting a certain way and look how a situation is perceived by individual.

For example, in one experiment they may be shown a picture of a couple holding hands and in the next slide they will tell the participant that the women is actually the man’s mistress and then they may ask to discuss how attractive each person in the picture is.

Before the added information, the participant may say that the subjects were attractive and even looked happy, but after hearing the additional information the participant might associate negative traits with the subjects. The participant might make judgments like the female’s skirt is too short or that she has too much make up on when before the negative information was disclosed, the subject was viewed as attractive.

This is really in response to the fact that infidelity is really still taboo in society and society really influences these norms in subtle ways.

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