What Are The Top 10 Unethical Psychology Experiments?

unethical psychology experiments

Posted September 2019 by Clifton Stamp, B.S. Psychology; M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling, M.A. English; 10 updates since. Reading time: 8 min. Reading level: Grade 9+. Questions on unethical psychology experiments? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

Like all sciences, psychology relies on experimentation to validate its hypotheses. This puts researchers in a bit of a bind, in that experimentation requires manipulation of one set of variables. Manipulating human beings can be unethical and has the potential to lead to outright harm. Nowadays experiments that involve human beings must meet a high standard for safety and security for all research participants. Although ethical and safety standards in the 21st century keep people safe from any potential ill effects of experiments and studies, conditions just a few decades ago were far from ideal and were in many cases out and out harmful. 

The Top 10 Unethical Psychology Experiments

10. The Stanford Prison Experiment (1971). This example of unethical research studies occurred in August of 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University began a Navy-funded experiment examining the effects of power dynamics between prison officers and prisoners. It only took six days before the experiment collapsed. Participants so completely absorbed their roles that the “officers” began psychologically torturing the prisoners and the prisoners became aggressive toward the officers. The prisoners, in turn, fought the guards and refused to comply with requests.  By the second day, prisoners refused to obey guards and the guards started threatening prisoners with violence, far over their instructions.  By the 6th day, guards were harassing the prisoners physically and mentally and some guards had harmed prisoners. Zimbardo stopped the experiment at that point.

9. The Monster Study (1939). The Monster Study is a prime example of an unethical psychology experiment on humans that changed the world. Wendell Johnson, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, conducted an experiment about stuttering on 22 orphans. His graduate student, Mary Tudor, experimented while Johnson supervised her work. She divided a group of 22 children into two groups. Each group was a mixture of children with and without speech problems. One group received encouragement and positive feedback, but the other was ridiculed for any speech problems, including non-existent problems. Children who received ridicule naturally made no progress, and some of the orphans with no speech problems developed those very problems.

The study continued for six months and caused lasting, chronic psychological issues for some of the children. The study caused so much harm that some of the former subjects secured a monetary award from the University of Iowa in 2007 due to the harm they’d suffered.

8. The Milgram Conformity Experiment (1961). After the horrors of the Second World War, psychological researchers like Stanley Milgram wondered what made average citizens act like those in Germany who had committed atrocities. Milgram wanted to determine how far people would go carrying out actions that might be detrimental to others if they were ordered or encouraged to do so by an authority figure. The Milgram experiment showed the tension between that obedience to the orders of the authority figure and personal conscience. 

In each experiment, Milgram designated  three people as either a teacher, learner or experimenter. The “learner” was an actor planted by Milgram and stayed in a room separate from the experimenter and teacher. The teacher attempted to teach the learner how to perform small sets of word associations. When the learner got a pair wrong, the teacher delivered an electric shock to the learner. In reality, there was no shock given. The learner pretended to be in increasingly greater amounts of distress. When some teachers expressed hesitation about increasing the level of shocks, the experimenter encouraged them to do so.

Many of the subjects (the teachers) experienced severe and lasting psychological distress. The Milgram Conformity Experiment has become the byword for well-intentioned psychological experiments gone wrong.

8. David Reimer (1967–1977). When David Reimer was eighth months old, his penis was seriously damaged during a failed circumcision. His parents contacted John Money, a professor of psychology and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins, who was a researcher in the development of gender. As David had an identical twin brother, Money viewed the situation as a rare opportunity to conduct his own experiment into the nature of gender, by advising Reimer’s parents to have the David sexually reassigned as a female. Money’s theory was that gender was a completely sociological construct and primarily influenced by nurture, as opposed to nature. Money was catastrophically wrong. 

Reimer never identified as female and developed strong psychological attachment to being a male. At age 14, Reimer’s parents told him the truth about his condition and he elected to switch to a male identity. Although he later had surgery to correct the initial sex re-assignment, he suffered from profound depression related to his sex and gender issues and committed suicide in 2004. Money’s desire to test his controversial psychology experiment on humans without their consent cost someone his life. 

7. Landis’ Facial Expressions Experiment (1924). In 1924, at the University of Minnesota, Carney Landis created an experiment on humans to investigate the similarity of different people’s’ facial expressions. He wanted to determine if people displayed similar or different facial expressions while experiencing common emotions.

Carney chose students as participants, who were exposed to different situations to prompt emotional reactions. However, to elicit revulsion, he ordered the participants to behead a live rat. One-third of participants refused to do it, while another two-thirds complied, with a great deal of trauma done to them–and the rats. This unethical experiment is one of many reasons review boards were created and have made drastic changes in policy over experiments done on humans.

6. The Aversion Project (1970s and 80s). During the apartheid years in South Africa,  doctors in the South African military tried to “cure” homosexuality in conscripts by forcing them to undergo electroshock therapy and chemical castration. The military also forced gay conscripts to undergo sex-change operations. This happened as one segment of a secret military program headed by Dr. Aubrey Levin that sought to study and eliminate homosexuality in the military as recently as 1989. Exception for several cases of lesbian soldiers who were abused, most of the 900 soldiers to be abused were very young, from 16 to 24-year-old male conscripts. Astoundingly, Dr. Levin relocated to Canada where he worked until he was sent to prison for assaulting a patient.

5. Monkey Drug Trials (1969).  The Monkey Drug Trials experiment was ostensibly meant to test the effects of  illicit drugs on monkeys. Given that monkeys and humans have similar reactions to drugs, and that animals have long been part of medical experiments, the face of this experiment might not look too bad. It’s actually horrific. Monkeys and rats learned to self-administer a range of drugs, from cocaine, amphetamines, codeine, morphine and alcohol. The animals suffered horribly, tearing their fingers off, clawing fur away, and in some cases breaking bones attempting to break out of their cages. This psychology experiment study had no purpose other than to re-validate studies that had been validated many times before. 

4. Little Albert (1920). John Watson, the founder of the psychological school of behaviorism, believed that behaviors were primarily learned. Anxious to test his hypothesis, he used an orphan, “Little Albert,” as an experimental subject. He exposed the child to a laboratory rat, which caused no fear response from the boy, for several months. Next, at the same time, the child was exposed to the rat, he struck a steel bar with a hammer, scaring the little boy and causing a fear response. By associating the appearance of the rat with the loud noise, Little Albert became afraid of the rat. Naturally, the fear was a condition that needed to be fixed, but the boy left the facility before Watson could remedy things.

3. Harlow’s Pit of Despair (1970s). Harry Harlow, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was a researcher in the field of maternal bonding. To investigate the effects of attachment on development, he took young monkeys and isolated them after they’d bonded with their mothers. He kept them completely isolated, in a vertical chamber that prevented all contact with other monkeys.  They developed no social skills and became completely unable to function as normal rhesus monkeys. These controversial psychology experiments, were not only staggeringly cruel but revealed no data that wasn’t already known.

2. Learned Helplessness (1965). In 1965, Doctors Martin Seligman and Steve Maier investigated the concept of learned helplessness. Three sets of dogs were placed in harnesses. One group of dogs were control subjects. Nothing happened to them. Dogs from group two received electric shocks; however, they were able to stop the shocks when they pressed a lever. In group three, the subjects were shocked, but the levers didn’t abort the shocks. Next, the psychologists placed the dogs in an open box the dogs could easily jump out of, but even though they received shocks, they didn’t leap out of the box. The dogs developed a sense of helplessness, or an inability to take successful action to change a bad situation.

1. The Robbers Cave Experiment (1954). Although the Robbers Cave Experiment is much less disturbing than some of the others in the list, it’s still a good example of the need for informed consent. In 1954, Muzafer Sherif, a psychologist interested in group dynamics and conflict, brought a group of preteen boys to a summer camp. He divided them into groups and engaged the boys in competitions. However, Sherif manipulated the outcomes of the contests, keeping the results close for each group. Then he gave the boys tasks to complete as a unified group, with everyone working together. The conflicts that had arisen when the boys were competing vanished when they worked as one large group.

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