Saturday, October 8, 2011

Jane Elliott's Blue Eyes/ Brown Eyes Experiment

[LATimes news article on the experiment]

In 1968, the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, a third grade teacher named Jane Elliott tried to devise a way to make her all-white students understand the power of prejudice from an angle to which they had previously been unexposed. Mrs. Elliott told her students that they would play a game in which the blue-eyed students belonged to an inferior group of lazy, stupid people, and that the next day the rules would be switched around so that the brown-eyed children were inferior.
The children were enthusiastic about this "game". Some of the rules included that the "inferior" group must use a cup to drink from the water fountain, must leave late to lunch and recess, and must not speak to the "superior" group. Almost immediately, the superior group began to act noticeably different towards the others and amongst themselves. They became more confident, arrogant even, and domineering, excluding the other group. Interestingly, children in the superior group who had previously shown slowness in learning to read were now excelling academically, while children of the inferior group displayed angry, resentful, frightened, "stupid", and intimidated behavior.
This experiment was an exercise in the way prejudice and racism work in society. It demonstrated that prejudice does not originate internally or independently, and that it depends on externally introduced notions. Different races or skin colors are unnecessary in an experiment with prejudice and discrimination based on physical differences, which is important because it shows the arbitrary nature of prejudice. The discriminated-against characteristic can just as easily be eye color as skin color.

[Jane Elliott expands on the importance of this experiment in today's world.]


  1. Although I believe the fact that the authoritarian figure being a professor in this experiment has a lot to do with the results, I also believe the Norm of Reciprocity may have been an element of influence. There is no doubt that young people and children are highly influenced by a figure in authority. Most ages and classes all follow suit in this regard as is natural. I do find the second days test group of students to have several additional factors aiding in there behavior towards the blue-eyed students.

    Because the day before they had been treated negatively and many had become very upset, I believe there was a part of all of them that would seek a certain level of revenge. The Norm of Reciprocity theorized by Gouldner states that we treat others as they have treated us. Because the brown eyed students were so mean to the students the day before they could have became equally so. At the age of the focus group it is hard to tell whether the children had malicious intent or were simply reacting to the emotions that were being fed to them by authority. But it is an interesting question nonetheless.

  2. This article very much adheres to the concept of self-perception, but rather a sort of inverse self-perception, whereby the forced situation that the kids were placed into could have affected how they really began to feel about the other coloured-eyed group. For example, the fact that these kids were given the superiority to treat the other group inferior to them, they really took this role into action but perhaps also began to feel that they really were superior (until they had to switch roles the next day).
    This seems to display the idea that once an entire group has been fed the same sort of idea about another certain group, it may not be entirely that you feel a personal prejudice about them but rather, are so exposed to the image in which you think you should be feeling a certain way towards them they you begin to believe it.
    Most definitely, this article focuses on the idea of stereotypes and therefore prejudice as a result of these learned stereotypes. We can then see the clear link and process that joins the concept of stereotypes and prejudice together.
    An example that conveys this idea well is when an experiment was conducted and people were made to smile or frown while watching a series of cartoons. The people who were forced to smile found the cartoons actually funnier as opposed to the people who were forced to frown did not enjoy these cartoons as much as the other group. This really shows how environment and its factors really affect us and therefore relates directly to self-perception.

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  4. I believe that discrimination is based on one's environment. In this experiment, I think that since the children were placed in two separate groups that they felt the need to join together in their groups. It was out of extinct that they joined because they were not allowed to really have contact with the other group. In addition, the fact that Jane was part of their environment as a superior, also influenced the students. At times, she would say things that made one group feel more superior or inferior like commenting how fast the superior group were at their test. Having an authoritative figure made the superior group feel more superior than they were already.
    According to the textbook, in chapter 5 (Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination (p. 150 (7th ed.)), I believe that the children of the second group started to boast and discriminate the inferior group because of the social identity theory. The theory states that people favor ingroups over outgroups in order
    to enhance their self esteem. Thus, the children of the second superior group started to belittle the other group in order to enhance their self esteem, which was previously hurt being in the inferior group. It is a type of revenge like Casey says.
    In relation, in eighth grade, my history teacher did a kind of experiment in which he made most of the class "Indian"s and a few students "superior white people". He made the "Indians" stand outside for a week touching a pole. The superior white group were said to be smarter than the Indians, even though in reality, most of the students in the group had the lowest grades in the class. The superior group would taunt the "Indians" saying how stupid we were. In addition, they felt superior that they had a teacher, or a person of authority on their side.
    Like in Jane's experiment, the people of the inferior group started to take on the role as being belittled. You could tell that after the class, the "Indian"s had a more depressed feeling. The two groups stopped talking to each other after class, and their was a distinction in the classroom. In the end of the week, my teacher said it was all an experiment, and that we all passed. He then asked us if he should do this experiment with the next year students. Everyone said yes. I believe most of the people who were in the inferior group said yes, so that they could have a sense of revenge. They wanted to heighten their self image which had just been hurt from being in the inferior group.

  5. The videos from this study that we watched last class were particularly interesting because I think that after so much negative reinforcement, as well as discrimination, the children actually believed that they were "less of a person" solely based on their eye color, when they had not even thought about this prior to this experiment. The book talks about how "negative feedback" attached to discrimination can essentially make people feel "as if they have less personal control over their lives." (167) If someone is constantly being told that they are lower than someone else, surely there will be a drop in self esteem, regardless of the truth behind it. Not only does it become a general problem within a society, but it definitely affects the individuals within said society. If you are constantly treated differently because of something then you will begin to believe that it is true, even if it is something ludicrous like a superior eye color.

  6. I think the results of this experiment apply not only to prejudice and racism based on external or visual notions like physical differences- I believe it applies to discrimination on the individual-to-group level as a whole. The way the children in the “inferior” group responded- the “angry, resentful…intimidated behavior”- was typical of the general response people exhibit when being discriminated/rejected by a certain group of people.

    When people are rejected or discriminated against by a group of people or faced with social rejection (“superior” or not), the likeliness of them responding with aggressive behavior increases (Twenge, J.M., Baumeister, R.F., Tice, D.M., & Stucke, T.S. 2001). It seems as if discrimination didn’t have to depend on just race/physical traits to be evident and exhibit negative effects on people, especially in terms of aggression.

    Back in high school, I went through a bunch of rejection/discrimination from different social groups at school, and I can attest to those kinds of results personally. I’d rather not go into too much detail with what exactly happened, but in a nutshell, these people made me feel so bad, that it was enough to make me act on my feelings and consequently got myself in a very ugly predicament.

    P.S. Sorry for the weird link that doesn't want to hyperlink, I couldn't find a direct link online to the article, so I got the PDF from some website and put it on Google Documents. :| Just copy and paste it in your URL bar.

  7. I really enjoyed the clip that was shown of the blue eyes / brown eyes experiment. I'm interested in how the increased ability caused by being the superior eye color can be transfered over into the psychology of education in todays flawed system. For example is there a certain way to build into students that are not confident and that feel that they are stupid by just structuring lesson plans or classroom dynamic to help them? Is there something that teachers at school districts that are below the poverty level can do with their classed to instill in them a sense of pride and independence that seems to be lacking in individuals that have not been played a good "deck of cards in life".