Fun Psychology Experiment Ideas

by Linda Foley

Psychology is fun for students, especially when they learn through hands-on activities, such as experiments. Teachers can find many examples of classroom activities and psychological experiments appropriate for the classroom in teachers' manuals for specific textbooks and on websites.

Prisoner's Dilemma Game

The "Prisoner's Dilemma Game" shows cooperation and competition. Start by describing a situation where two arrested people are separated immediately. The arresting officers tell each prisoner that if he confesses, he will get a reduced punishment. If both prisoners confess, their punishments will be longer. If neither prisoner confesses (they cooperate), both prisoners will receive short punishments. Place people into groups with three members: two game players and the middle person as scorekeeper. During ten trials, players do not speak as they give the scorekeeper a paper saying they will confess or not. Use points in place of punishment. One possibility is when a person confesses and her partner does not, give confessor 10 points and partner minus 5. If both confess, each receives 2 points. If both cooperate (neither confesses), each receives 5 points.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Have paired people interview each other to find out what the other person is like. After a few moments, give them a questionnaire about the other person. Devise a questionnaire with 10 or 12 characteristics, being sure they are positive or neutral, for example "quiet" or "talkative" or "depends on situation." When they have completed the questionnaire about their partners, have them respond to the same questionnaire about themselves. Then ask all participants to count the number of times they marked "depends on situation" for their partner and themselves. People are more likely to choose "depends on situation" for themselves than for others -- the Fundamental Attribution Error -- attributing their behavior to the situation and the behavior of other people to their personality.

In-groups and Out-groups

You can show the ease with which in-groups and out-groups form by putting people into two groups. The basis for inclusion in the group should be something simple such as who is wearing jeans and who is wearing other types of clothing. Seat the members of the two groups (jeans wearers and non-jeans wearers) together and tell them to discuss why the other group is dressed differently. After the discussion continues, people have a tendency to find more derogatory reasons for the worn clothes -- producing an in-group and out-group.

False Consensus Effect

Develop a short questionnaire with simple questions, such as, "I think the government should spend less money on security and more on helping the homeless." The questionnaire should be short and one that can be answered quickly. After people answer the questionnaires by themselves, ask them to guess the number of others in their group who have the same opinion on each question. Then ask participants to raise their hands to indicate their responses on the questions. People have a tendency to overestimate how many others have the same opinion they do. The False Consensus Effect demonstrates the idea that people think those who are similar to themselves also have similar attitudes.

About the Author

Linda Foley has been writing about psychology and the justice system since 1974. Her articles have been published in the "Journal of Forensic Psychology," "Trial Lawyer" and the "Journal of Social Behavior and Personality." Foley holds a Doctor of Philosophy in social psychology from the University of Florida.

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