One of my own favourite and most personally significant psychology experiments isn’t an experiment at all in the strictest sense, more a set of observations. But it is scientific, it is fun and it was an impetus that steered me towards studying developmental psychology. I hope you find it delightful and intriguing too.
An ecological study of glee in small groups of preschool children.
Sherman LW. Child Dev. 1975 Mar;46(1):53-61.
A phenomenon called group glee was studied in videotapes of 596 formal lessons in a preschool. This was characterized by joyful screaming, laughing, and intense physical acts which occurred in simultaneous bursts or which spread in a contagious fashion from one child to another. A variety of precipitating factors were identified, the most prevalent being teacher requests for volunteers, unstructured lags in lessons, gross physical-motor actions, and cognitive incongruities. Distinctions between group glee and laughter were pointed out. While most events of glee did not disrupt the ongoing lesson, those which did tended to produce a protective reaction on the part of teachers. Group glee tended to occur most often in large groups (7-9 children) and in groups containing both sexes. The latter finding was related to Darwin’s theory of differentiating vocal signals in animals and man.
There are many things I love about this study but to be brief. First, I love the image of all these groups of gleeful children. It’s hard not to read the paper and imagine these delirious children without breaking into wide smiles yourself, which just goes to demonstrate how infectiousness glee can be! Then I love the fact that Lawrence Sherman had the inspiration to investigate something so cheerful and silly and I love that to do so he had to video hundreds of hours of lessons and then spend many hundreds of hours more carefully scoring and analysing the tapes to discover exactly how the phenomenon occurs. Science is a painstaking business, whatever your hypothesis.
(Incidently, this study won it’s author the Ig Nobel Prize for Psychology in 2001. Quite right too!)