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Ten Unusual Experiments in the Name of Science – The Fake Plane Crash

Ten Unusual Experiments in the Name of Science – The Fake Plane Crash

Suppose you’re a cognitive psychologist interested in the workings of fear – especially human behaviour in life-and-death situations.  Today, that would mean you’d probably be experimenting on laboratory rats. In the sixties, however, you would have simulated a plane crash. 

Psychologist Mitchell Berkun, together with a research team, was the one who came up with this experiment in the early ‘60’s. Citing flaws in earlier studies that had induced stress artificially (through electric shock for example), the researchers designed experiments in which the research participant was “actually a victim of, a potential victim of, or a party to the threat directly, rather than as result of empathizing, identifying, pretending, protecting, or introjection”. In other words: it had to be real this time.

And so the fake plane crash was plotted. Ten soldiers going through basic training at the Hunter Liggett Reservation in California were asked to join a test flight. After the plane had reached cruising altitude, one of the propellers stalled and the soldiers were told over the intercom that “something was wrong” and that the pilot “had to make an emergency landing”.

Please sign at the dotted line
Obviously the soldiers on board felt a bit uneasy after hearing this message, but creating a death scare was just part one of the experiment. Part two: testing “cognitive ability under psychological stress”.  While watching the arrival of fire engines and ambulances below for the eventual crash, the ten men were handed out an insurance form to fill out. Once the last soldier had finished,  the pilot’s voice sounded trough the intercom again: ‘Just kidding about that emergency,” after which he safely landed the plane.

Was the experiment successful? Mwah. The researchers found that the soldiers did in fact make more mistakes while filling out their forms, than did the control group that conducted the same task in a classroom. However, most of the men reported to have felt merely ‘unsteady’ during the incident. Some of them had flight experience and suspected something was up. Scared or not, the soldiers did ‘ruin’ enjoying a near-death experience for others to come –  by leaving a note on one of the bags for airsickness, the second group on which this experiment was conducted was warned  upfront about the so-called plane crash.

Read (non open access) study

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1 Comment

  • Ken Berkun
    June 15, 2014, 21:44

    Dr. Berkun was my father. I grew up with him doing these experiments and then dealing with the guilt as he gradually came to grips with the understanding of how bad they were. Not long after these he switched to teaching and did no more experimental work. We have to remember that at the time, it just didn’t occur to people that this wasn’t a good idea.

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