The following study is a classic example of the laboratory experiment. A researcher wondered how far individuals would go in following commands. If subjects were placed in the role of a teacher in a learning experiment and told by an experimenter to administer a shock to a learner each time that learner made a mistake, would the subjects follow the commands of the experimenter? Would their willingness to comply decrease as the intensity of the shock was increased?
To test this hypothesis, the researcher hired a set of subjects. Each was lead to believe that the experiment was to investigate the effect of punishment on memory. Their job was to act as teachers and administer punishment whenever the learner made a mistake on the learning test.
Punishment was administered by an electric shock. The subject sat in front of a shock generator with 30 levels of shock beginning at zero and progressing in 15 volt increments to a high of 450 volts. The demarcations of these positions ranged from Slight Shock at 15 volts to Danger Severe Shock at 450 volts. To increase the realism of the experiment, the subjects received a sample shock of 45 volts and saw the learner a pleasant, mild-mannered man about 50 years old strapped into an electric chair in an adjacent room. Of course, the learner was an actor, and the electric shocks were phony, but the subjects didn’t know this.
Taking his seat in front of the shock generator, the subject was directed to begin at the lowest shock level and to increase the shock intensity to the next level each time the learner made a mistake or failed to respond.
When the test began, the shock intensity rose rapidly because the learner made many errors. The subject got verbal feedback from the learner: At 75 volts, the learner began to grunt and moan; at 150 volts, he demanded to be released from the experiment; at 180 volts, he cried out that he could no longer stand the pain; and at 300 volts, he insisted that he be let out, yelled about his heart conditions, screamed and then failed to respond to further questions.
Most subjects protested and fearful they might kill the learner of the increased shocks were to bring on a heart attack, insisted they could not go on with their job. Hesitations or protests by the subject were met by the experimenter’s statement. You have no choice, you must go on! Your job is to punish the learner’s mistakes. Of course, the subjects did have a choice. All he had to do was stand up and walk out.
The majority of the subjects dissented. But dissension isn’t synonymous with disobedience. Sixty two percent of the subjects increased the shock level to the maximum of 450 volts. The average level of shock administered by the examining 38 percent was nearly 370 volts.
In a laboratory experiment such as that conducted by the researcher an artificial environment is created by the researchers. Then the researcher manipulates an independent variable under controlled conditions. Finally, since all other things are held equal, the researcher is able to conclude that any change in the dependent variable is due to the manipulation or change imposed on the independent variable. Note that, because of the controlled conditions, the researcher is able to imply causation between the independent and dependent variables.
The laboratory experiment trades off realism and generalization for precision and control. It provides a high degree of control over variables and precise measurement of those variables. But findings from laboratory studies are often difficult to generalize to the real world of work. This is because the artificial laboratory rarely duplicates the intricacies and nuances of real organizations In addition many laboratory experiments or applied to real life situations.