The human mind is complicated. Everyone perceives the world differently, and things like instincts, how you were raised, and your own personal preferences can have a huge impact on your reactions to experiences. Ever since Freud, psychologists have been working to understand the human psyche, and it hasn’t been easy, or straight forward.
Psychological experiments can be dangerous because no one knows how someone will react to something, and permanent damage can be done. Often, causing damage is a lot easier than repairing it, so doctors have to be extremely cautious when using human beings to test their theories on psychological development.
While a lot of progress has been made in figuring out the human mind, there has also been setbacks that caused irreparable damage to the test subjects. Read on for 10 psychological experiments that went horribly wrong.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo, conducted The Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 to study the effects of becoming a prisoner, and a prison guard. The hypothesis was that the inherent personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior in prison. 24 males students were randomly selected and assigned either a prisoner, or a guard role. The experiment was supposed to last 14 days, but was terminated after only 6 because of the unethical ways the “guards” were treating the “inmates”. The prisoners were subjected to psychological torture, which included being stripped of their individuality, and solitary confinement. One-third of the guards were judged to have exhibited “genuine sadistic tendencies”, and some of the prisoners were emotionally traumatized. The shortened study concluded that the actual prison experience, and appointed roles had more effect on the participants behaviour than existing personality traits.
The Monster Study
At the University of Iowa in 1939, a professor, Wendell Johnson, and a graduate student, Mary Tudor, recruited 22 orphaned children to assist them in their study of stuttering. The hypothesis was that that it is the well-meaning parent’s effort to help the child avoid what the parent has labeled “stuttering” (but is in fact within the range of normal speech) that contributes to what ultimately becomes the problem diagnosed as stuttering. Half of the children, who started out without any speech problems whatsoever, were continuously told that they had a stutter. These children became withdrawn, self conscious, and afraid to speak. In 2007, six of the children who participated in the study were awarded $925,000 by the State of Iowa for lifelong emotional and psychological scars.
When David Reimer was 8 months old, he suffered a botched circumcision, and his penis was lost to burns. Psychologist, John Money suggested they give him a sex change, and raise him as a girl. The Reimer’s agreed, but what Money didn’t tell them was that he was secretly using David as a part of an experiment to prove his hypothesis that gender identity is not inborn, but determined and developed by nurture, and upbringing. David was renamed Brenda, and given hormone supplements. But despite being treated like a daughter, David acted, and felt as though he were a boy. He was told the truth when he was 14, and he decided to go back to being David. He committed suicide at the age of 38.
Homosexual Aversion Therapy
Aversion therapy was a common practice to try to convert homosexual men to heterosexual in the 1960’s. In 1966, a series of aversion therapy experiments reported successful results in stopping men from acting on their homosexual desires, but later it was revealed that the results were flawed because a number of the participants were actually bisexual. In one treatment method, gay volunteers were administering electric shocks while viewing homosexual pornography. The therapy was controversial, and ended up causing psychological damage to the volunteers, and even death for one man as a result of the treatments.
The Third Wave
In 1967, history teacher Ron Jones decided to teach his sophomore “Contemporary World” class about Nazi Germany by engaging his students in a social experiment. He wanted to demonstrate that even democratic societies are not immune to the appeal of fascism. Jones called his movement “The Third Wave” and drilled the motto, “strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride,” into his students heads. By the end of the third day, more than 200 students had joined the class (and the movement), and members were quick to report people who weren’t abiding by the arbitrary rules Jones had made up. Jones decided to end the experiment at the end of the fifth day, believing he had demonstrated to his students how easy it is to fall into a fascist trap. He never expected the allure of his made-up fascist regime to spread so quickly, and so completely.
The Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise
In 1970, right after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, third grade teacher, Jane Elliott was looking for a way to teach her students about racism that would make them understand its impact. She devised the blue eyes/brown eyes exercise by splitting up her class of 8-year-old according to their eye colour. She then treated the children with brown eyes as inferior, as a demonstration of what coloured people experience every day. Her exercise got a lot of national attention, and people criticized her for experimenting on young children. One letter said, “how dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children? Black children grow up accustomed to such behavior, but white children, there’s no way they could possibly understand it. It’s cruel to white children and will cause them great psychological damage.” Elliott was ostracized in her small white community, but she went on to use her experience to teach adults about racism.
The Milgram Experiment
Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale University wanted to test the obedience to authority, so he created the Milgram Experiment. He would have one person (the teacher) ask another person (the learner) a question, and if they answered wrong, the teacher was to administer an electric shock. What the teacher didn’t know was that the learner was actually an actor, and the electric shocks weren’t real. While some of the teachers refused to continue the experiment when the learner begged them to stop, 26 out of 40 participants continued to 450 volt shocks just because they were told they couldn’t stop. Despite what the experiment revealed about the dark side of human nature, most of the participants were grateful to have participated, as it taught them something about following authority blindly.
The Pit of Despair
The Pit of Despair was the nickname comparative psychologist, Harry Harlow, gave the apparatus he built for his experiments on inducing clinical depression in monkeys. For the study, Harlow placed monkeys age 3 months to 3 years inside a small, cold, lonely chamber after they had already had the opportunity to bond with their mothers, and observed how long it took them to show signs of depression. After a certain amount of time the isolated monkeys would no longer explore or play, and two of them even refused to eat and starved themselves to death. The study was widely condemned as torture, and Harlow’s methods were called unnecessary, and cruel. The study was one of the major catalysts in regulating animal testing, and developing laws to prevent animal cruelty.
MK-Ultra was the code name given to an illegal and secret program of experiments on human beings, made by the CIA. The experiments on humans were intended to identify and develop drugs and procedures to be used in interrogations and torture, in order to weaken the individual to force confessions through mind control. The experiments began in the 1950’s and continued until 1973. Drugs, such as LSD, were often administered without the subject’s knowledge or consent. The aim of this was to find drugs which would irresistibly bring out deep confessions or wipe a subject’s mind clean and program him or her as “a robot agent”. Many of the participants died as a result of the drugs they were given, but the true extent of the damage MK-Ultra inflicted will never be known because the CIA destroyed the majority of their records on the experiments.
Landis’ Facial Expression Experiment
In 1924, Carney Landis, a psychology graduate conducted an experiment on facial experiments to try to determine if there were common expressions for certain emotions. The volunteers, who were mostly students, had black lines drawn on their faces so their muscle movements could be tracked when they were exposed to stimuli meant to illicit a strong reaction. They were made to watch pornography, smell ammonia, and put their hand in a bucket of frogs. Then a live rat was placed in front of them, and they were told to behead it. One third of the volunteers obeyed the request, but obviously none of them knew how to do it in a humane way, so the animals suffered. For the volunteers that refused to perform the decapitation, Landis would take the knife and do it for them. The study failed to make any conclusions about universal facial expressions, but revealed, once again, the dark side of human nature.