Psychology as a science employs the experimental scientific method when trying to determine the cause and effect of everyday phenomena. It is believed that validity (when a study actually measures what it aims to measure) and reliability (when an experiment can be replicated, and the results corroborated therefore) are essential components of theoretical foundations. Ecological validity is a term used to describe the extent to which laboratory experiments can mimic natural conditions (Turner, 2019).
For instance, if a psychologist is trying to determine the effects of crime on mental health, an experiment would have to be conducted in order to test these variables; nevertheless, some aspects of crime scene and court settings are impossible to test due to the fatal, or extremely damaging nature of such situations. Consequently, many experimental forensic psychological hypotheses cannot be taken outside the laboratory, nor can these be tested in natural conditions; and this is why mock-studies are conducted in order to understand the processes involved in case law, but these are considered to have very low ecological validity. A good example of a mock forensic psychology experiment gone wrong is Zimbardo’s (1973) Stanford Prison Experiment as cited in Eysenck (2000), which was extremely traumatic for the participants, as severe psychological damage was imposed on them.
Half of the participants took the role of prisoners, and the other half took the job of prison guards. The reason why mock studies are conducted is to make sure that no harm is done to participants; yet, this experiment went beyond the scope of mock studies and some of those playing the prisoners could no longer differentiate whether the experiment was real or not. Nowadays this type of experiment would not be allowed by an ethics committee due to its high level of ecological validity. The way in which guards abused the power and authority given to them was atrocious, and the overall experiment was detrimental to every single participant in each category.
Eysenck (2000, p. 568-569) stated: “Violence and rebellion broke out within two days […] One of the prisoners showed such severe symptoms of emotional disturbance (disorganised thinking, uncontrollable crying, and screaming) that he had to be released after only one day”. Furthermore, Zimbardo was harshly criticised for having failed to protect the physical and mental health of all parties involved. What makes a experiment a mock-study is the fact that prisoners usually know the reason why they are imprisoned; whereas Zimbardo’s study added an extra-factor by misleading them into thinking they were imprisoned for real.
Overall, Zimbardo’s (1973) experiment was very much ecologically valid and consistent with miscarriages of justice, such as when a person is innocent and yet is sent to prison, what can be imagined to be a nightmare of confusion, uncertainty, fear, and injustice.
Eysenck, M. W. (2000) Psychology: A Student’s Handbook, East Sussex, Psychology Press Ltd, pp. 568-569, 789.
Turner, J. (2019) ‘5 Focus on methods: ecological validity’, DD210-19J Week 18: Making sense of the world, The Open University [Online]. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1467730§ion=5 (Accessed 17 March 2020).