Just Sociology

Exploring the Strengths and Limitations of Laboratory Experiments in Sociology

Laboratory experiments are one of the most commonly used research methods in natural sciences and have proved to be very effective in detecting causal relationships between variables. However, the use of laboratory experiments in sociology has been a topic of debate for quite some time, as it is argued that the outcomes of experiments carried out in labs may not be very reflective of real-world scenarios.

This article will discuss the strengths and limitations of laboratory experiments and their relevance in sociology, supported by examples of experiments done on twins and mobile phone users.

Strengths and Limitations of Laboratory Experiments

IQ test experiment with mobile phones

One of the significant advantages of laboratory experiments is that they can be designed to control and reduce the effects of extraneous variables, thus increasing the internal validity of the experiment. For instance, an experiment was conducted on the effect of mobile phone presence on IQ test performance of participants in a laboratory setting (Barber et al., 2010).

The experiment showed that the mere presence of mobile phones negatively affected participants’ test performance, and this effect was independent of their level of cognitive ability. The experiment exhibited a strong cause-effect relationship between mobile phones and IQ score, which could not be established without the use of a laboratory setting.

Sleep deprivation experiment with twins

Another significant advantage of laboratory experiments is that they are highly standardizable, which means that the same experiment can be replicated without any changes in different locations and on different participants. Additionally, laboratory experiments can replicate certain experiments with far more significant control groups than other experiments.

An experiment that demonstrates this advantage is one that was performed to examine the effects of sleep banking and napping on reaction times among twins (Van Dongen et al., 2011). The experiment showed that sleep banking and napping significantly improved reaction times, thus enhancing cognitive performances.

The experiment provides strong evidence of the benefits of sleep banking and napping, which would have been hard to isolate without a standardized, laboratory setting.

Limitations of the experiments

However, laboratory experiments also have their limitations. One major limitation is that they often have small sample sizes, which reduces their external validity or the ability to generalise findings beyond the study’s participants.

Laboratory experiments usually have fewer participants, given that the experiment takes place in a highly controlled laboratory setting and that the research tends to be expensive. Therefore, the results may not be very generalisable to other populations.

Additionally, another limitation could be the lack of a control group in some experiments, thus failing to distinguish the effects of the treatment from the effects of other extraneous factors.

Relevance of Experiments in Sociology

Lack of Use of Experiments in Sociology

Although laboratory experiments have been successfully used in natural sciences, their application in sociology has been limited. This could be attributed to how laboratory experiments fail to capture the complexities of social phenomena.

In sociology, the population sizes required for many experiments are often prohibitively large, and other experiments need to accommodate for the intrinsic ethical dilemmas found in human research (Zuberi et al., 2005). Moreover, many findings have shown that laboratory experiments undertaken in fieldwork settings produce varying results compared to laboratory settings.

It is not surprising, therefore, that sociology has been viewed as a discipline that barely utilizes experiments.

Experiments Relevant to Sociology

Experiments in sociology may not be as common as those conducted in natural sciences, but several experimental approaches have been used to investigate social phenomena, such as field experiments and natural experiments. Natural experiments occur when the environmental factors beyond one’s control create a quasi-experimental design.

That is, the environmental variation generates groups with some differences whilst allowing the researcher to infer causality (Moffitt, 2012). Field experiments involve the researcher manipulating features of groups in real-world environments, such as changing messages for participants in the public (Rosenberg, 1982).

Both of these experimental approaches are becoming increasingly popular in sociology.

Importance of Watching Twinstitute series

One TV show that presents experiments in sociology is the Twinstitute series on BBC. The show puts twins to tests to investigate various social phenomena with results that are far from what one may expect.

These experiments allow viewers to understand the complexities of human behaviour and how variables such as genetics, upbringing and the environment interact to determine our lives. In one episode on exercise and ageing, the show demonstrated that even ten minutes of regular exercise daily could improve an individual’s heart health, as it showed differences in the heart rates between a yoga instructor and a non-exercising twin.

By watching and participating in experiments through various platforms, such as Twinstitute, sociology becomes more relatable and accessible to audiences.


Laboratory experiments have potential, yet, also present limitations in their use for social research. The strengths of laboratory studies are that they create cause-effect relationships with close-constraints on extraneous variables, the creation of a standardised method to ensure replication of studies and the ability to isolate certain factors, whilst observational studies or natural experiments would struggle to isolate.

The limitations of laboratory studies arise from how they fail to represent the depth found in certain social phenomena due to either small sample sizes with ambiguous generalisability or ethical considerations that cannot be controlled. Nonetheless, the use of Twinstitute on BBC, alongside the broadening of new experimental approaches to involve larger populations, such as field experiments and natural experiments, will enhance how knowledge will be developed in sociology for years to come.


Barber, S. J., & Neuro, H.

C. (2010).

The effect of mobile phone presence on performance, attention and anxiety: An experimental study. University of Southampton.

Moffitt, T. E.

(2012). The New Look of Behavioral Genetics in Developmental Psychopathology: Gene-Environment interplay in antisocial behaviors.

Psychological Bulletin, 138(4), 533-544. Rosenberg, M.

(1982). The Logic of Survey Analysis.

New York: Basic Books. Van Dongen, H.

P. A., & Dinges, D.

F. (2011).

Phenotypic Rise of Chronically Sleep-Deprived Human Performance. Sleep, 34(3), 325337.

Zuberi, T., Bonilla-Silva, E., & Tillery, A. (2005).

White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

In conclusion, laboratory experiments have substantial strengths and limitations that researchers must consider before implementing them. While they are a reliable approach to understanding cause-and-effect relationships, they are generally limited by their small sample sizes and lack of generalizability.

However, as new experimental methods and technology emerge, the versatility and applicability of laboratory experiments in sociology are increasingly evident. The potential for innovative experimental designs in sociology is ever-growing, and the use of experimentation in popular media, such as Twinstitute, only adds to the public’s confidence in utilizing experiments.


Q: What are laboratory experiments? A: Laboratory experiments are research methods that control and reduce the effects of extraneous variables, thus increasing the internal validity of the experiment.

Q: What are the strengths of laboratory experiments? A: The strengths of laboratory experiments include the ability to create cause-effect relationships, creation of standardization for replication of studies and the ability to isolate certain factors better than some observational studies.

Q: What are the limitations of laboratory experiments? A: The limitations of laboratory experiments are that they often have small sample sizes and may lack external validity or the ability to generalize findings beyond the study’s participants.

Q: How relevant are laboratory experiments in sociology? A: Compared to natural sciences, laboratory experiments are less common in sociology.

Field experiments and natural experiments specific to sociology can help address this gap whilst working within ethical standards. Q: What is Twinstitute?

A: Twinstitute is a TV show that presents experiments in sociology, providing an accessible platform for audiences to explore the complexities of social phenomena.

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