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Brown Eyes or Blue: A Social Experiment

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Fin lives in California's Central Valley and is interested in social issues and creative writing.

Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Elliot conducted an interesting experiment with the children in her class that would illustrate much about how divisions in our society affect people's lives and conceptions of themselves.

Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Elliot conducted an interesting experiment with the children in her class that would illustrate much about how divisions in our society affect people's lives and conceptions of themselves.

A Revealing Classroom Exercise

If you are unfamiliar with this social experiment done with a third-grade classroom in 1968, this is certainly a story worth looking at. Jane Elliot said that after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination she heard newscasters saying: "Who will hold your people together?" The question inspired her to begin a new lesson at her school. Her students asked her: "Why did they kill a king?"

To begin her lesson, she surveyed her class of White students and asked them what physical characteristics she could use to divide her class into two groups. One of the students said they could use eye color, and Elliot decided to split the class into two groups: brown and blue.

Initially, the class was excited about this project and seemed to look forward to it. Eventually, though, this arbitrary division based on something simple as eye color would have a dramatic effect on the way students performed, behaved, and saw themselves.

The results were remarkable.

How the Division Affected the Children

The blue-eyed students, when told they were superior and offered privileges such as extra recess time, changed their behavior dramatically and their attitudes toward the children with brown eyes. The act of treating students differently was obviously a metaphor for the social decisions made on a larger level.

What Elliot discovered is that, initially, the blue-eyed students not only felt superior but would begin to taunt the students with brown eyes. Performance on tests by the students who were told they were in the special group excelled, while the same test scores plummeted for the group that represented the alienated brown eyes.

Enthusiasm increased for those who were from the group on top, while the group who was told they were less than equal became withdrawn and depressed. All this was done in a span of less than a day.

Elliot's Premises and Presumptions

Elliot's experiment certainly had noble intentions and produced some profound observations.

It should be expected that if you are treated as if you are expected to succeed, you shall find it easy to achieve your goals. On the opposite side of that, if you are told that you are a failure and no good, you probably will not only find it difficult to accomplish your requires tasks, but may find the effort futile, given that your successes go unrecognized. This is an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Opening a Dialogue

Whether or not you agree with Elliot's methodology, you will probably agree that her experiment inspires dialogue.

While Elliot certainly is not the first person to speak out about race, the results demonstrated the profound effects the power of suggestion could have. The brown-eyed children who were told they were inferior exhibited a decline in academic performance, a propensity towards senseless violence, and became withdrawn, all in a period of hours of being told that they were seen by the rest of the class as no good.

Elliot eventually had a documentary film, The Eye of the Storm, made about her work, and a book called A Class Divided. She has continued her work with employees of correctional facilities and college students and done tours worldwide, demonstrating her lecture to people from all walks of life.

She calls herself "The Bitch" and is adamant and unrelenting about her message and pounds her philosophy into the ears and heads of those willing to listen.

Are Elliot's Methods Sound and Fair?

While watching Elliot in some of her interviews or workshop clips, you cannot help but wonder that she must realize that she is an actor and that, in order to convey her message, she puts on a charade of sorts. The participants must also realize that when they attend her class they are part of the scheduled drama. However, listening to her tone and seeing her physical language, and looking at the reactions of the people during her lectures, one can't help but wonder if she is really hurting people's feelings.

Does she attain any sadistic pleasure from her vicious pantomimes? Is it possible that there is psychological damage occurring? There must be some sort of trauma involved, even if it is temporary. I personally felt a bit traumatized watching some of the episodes on video; I wasn't even in the same room.

The Great Power of Suggestion and Perception

Racism is not the major or only form of discrimination. It is probably one of the more overt and, in reality, senseless forms of bigotry. In the study of her third-grade students, many decided to give up, and this notion of apathy was adopted within a few hours of being told they were no good. Think about what centuries of the idea of inferiority coupled with the daily onslaught of negative images has done to some.

Much of it could be in perception as well. You take things as you do and create your own reality. If you tell yourself you will succeed, you will. If you set yourself up for failure, you have already failed. It's called a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps your skin complexion is unique within your community. Maybe you have a little more weight in your middle section than you want. Maybe you are extremely fit and find yourself the victim of continuous unwanted attention because of your beauty. Maybe you are finding yourself near retirement and confused and alienated by the pace of the modern world. Maybe you are none of those things and just wondering what the fuss is about.

Maybe you worship in a mosque instead of a cathedral or a temple.

Perhaps you are waiting, like many others, for the mothership to one day return and answer all of your questions and take you home.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Does this experiment violate any American psychology Association standards or guidelines?

Answer: That is a very good question and one that really cannot be provided a simple yes or no answer. When this was done originally, it was not an official experiment done for research purposes per se. The newer ones most possibly are, but it may not be an experiment in the traditional sense.

Guidelines usually imply informed consent as well as the fact that no harm will be done. It is difficult to say whether or not any psychological harm was committed in the current experiments with adults. I am sure there are instances of trauma because if you see some of her videos you will definitely view examples of turmoil where it appears that someone is being harmed.

Many of the experiments through recent history have violated ethical standards: The Stanford Experiment; many of Skinner's shock experiments and of course things like the Tuskegee airman.

I have an article on some of those too:

I cannot give you an honest answer, but you bring up a good point. Most universities have IRB (Institutional Review Boards) that approve experiments now. Please see for the APA Code of Ethics.

© 2017 Finn