Time for a quick ethical-bypass? From Minority Report ‘pre-cogs’ to recovered memories, the BPS (British Psychological Society) has just published a wondrous list of the ten most controversial psychology experiments ever published. Many took place before the Internet, and today many could never be replicated – at least officially and published – since they contravene changing standards in research ethics. Others are simply controversial.  But all have implications for digital marketers…

  1. The Stanford Prison Experiment (1971, Philip Zimbardo) Give people power, and they won’t just abuse it, they’ll abuse you: Is digital abuse the dark side and consequence of digital empowerment?
  2. The Milgram “Shock Experiments” (1961 Stanley Milgram) Give people an authority figure, and they will blindly follow, even kill: Could digital tech be creating a generation of digital sheep?
  3. The “Elderly-related Words Provoke Slow Walking” Experiment (1996 John Bargh) Hear, read or notice elderly people, and you behave elderly: Could using the power of suggestion through digital priming be the future of digital marketing?
  4. The Conditioning of Little Albert Experiment (1920 John Watson) Condition a baby to fear all things white and fluffy by scaring them every time they see a white rat: How could we use conditioned responses to sensory stimuli to make digital more effective?
  5. The “Lost in The Mall” Experiment (Elizabeth Loftus 1995) Implant fictitious memories such as being lost in a mall as a child by simply recounting them alongside true memories: Could digital marketing implant false memories about brands by presenting them alongside actual memories?
  6.  The Bem Pre-cognition Experiments (Daryl Bem 2010) Minority Report ‘precognition’ – scientifically demonstrated (but rarely replicated) by a highly respected researcher; you can know the future and be retroactively influenced by your future actions (revise for an exam just after you’ve taken the exam improves exam results): If we are ‘precogs’ (and it’s not a freak spurious data artefact), could post-purchase marketing influence prior purchasing???
  7. The Voodoo Correlations in Neuroscience Study (Ed Vul 2009)- A meta-analysis of neuroscience experiments linking behaviour and emotions to specific brain areas found results to be at best questionable (or like voodoo, spurious, non-existent): Should digital marketers adopt a healthy skepticism when it comes to neuromarketing?
  8. The Anti-Depressant Placebo Effect Study (Irving Kirsch 2008) – Suffering from mid to moderate depression? Then the benefit of taking a anti-depressants versus placebo may not be clinically meaningful: Could digital marketers use the placebo effect to shift perceptions? (For example would brand experience improve simply by telling people they have been enrolled in a VIP scheme)?
  9. The “Nurture Assumption” Study (Judith Harris 1995) Parenting has less influence on children than many parents want to believe – what matters most are peers and personality – not parents: Every consumer is unique, but if we are going to target ‘types’ or ‘clusters’ shouldn’t we focus on personality types (and peer groups)?
  10. Libet’s Free Will Challenge Experiments (Benjamin Libet 1983) You body moves just before you choose for it to move, so is free will and consciousness an effect rather than a cause: Behaviour before belief; should digital marketers focus on nudging behaviour rather than influencing intentions?