by Grant J Everett
Thousands of ethical psychological experiments have enabled modern researchers to better understand the workings of the human mind. Sadly, some ideas have backfired horribly, ruining lives and bringing the entire profession of psychology into disrepute. Here are some horror stories from the darkest of dark sciences…
The Stanford Prison experiment
In 1971, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo wanted to understand the ways that people conform to their established place in the world. He did this by using a group of college students to take part in a two-week-long experiment where they would live either as prisoners or guards in a pretend prison. The results may ruin what little hope you have left in humanity.
Having selected the test subjects, Zimbardo assigned each of them their roles without bothering to pass on this knowledge in advance, and arranged to have the “prisoners” arrested outside of their own homes (yep, in front of all their neighbours).
Documentaries, books and even big-budget Hollywood movies have told the story of what happened next. Spoiler: the results were beyond disturbing.
All of these garden-variety college students quickly morphed into sadistic guards or spineless prisoners and became deeply entrenched within their roles despite the fact that any of them could have left the experiment at any time. Humiliation, beatings and mind-games escalated to the point where Zimbardo had to prematurely end the experiment after just six days.
Were these results just a fluke, or could we all potentially switch into somebody unrecognizable under the same circumstances?
The Monster study
A group of twenty-two orphaned children were part of a 1939 experiment into positive and negative reinforcement. Ten of the kids had stutters. Separated equally between two speech therapists, one of the groups received “positive” therapy with their teacher, who praised the progress of the children and the fluency of their speech, while children from the other group were openly humiliated over the slightest mistake. The results were predictable: receiving constant negative feedback severely affected the psychological health of the children in the second group. In more bad news, it was later revealed that some of the children who didn’t have speech problems prior to the experiment actually developed them as a result of it. In 2007, half a dozen of the now-elderly children were awarded $925,000 in compensation for the emotional damage they suffered from being involved with the six month study.
Back in 1962, the director of Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City injected an elephant named Tusko with 3,000 times the typical dose of LSD you’d need to get Jim Morrison high. This was an attempt to determine whether the drug could induce “musth”, which is what you call it when male elephants get periodically aggressive due to high hormone levels. This experiment became a public relations disaster when poor Tusko threw a fit and died almost immediately.
In 1963, not all that long after the atrocities of the Holocaust, Stanley Milgram set out to test the hypothesis that there must be something “special” (aka: defective) about Germans. After all, how could “normal” humans be willing participants in genocide?
Milgram asked members of the public to ask some guy a few questions (we’ll call him…Guy) under the pretense that this was all a part of an experiment into human learning. There was a twist, of course: Guy was attached to an electric-shock generator, and he’d be zapped in an ever-increasing measure whenever he gave an incorrect answer. In a second twist, Guy turned out to be an actor and the shocks were fake, but the participants didn’t know that.
The terrifying part? These average people overwhelmingly obeyed the commands of the researcher without question, even when Guy screamed in agony and begged for mercy. Aren’t we a wonderful species?
A heap of people with schizophrenia enrolled in a University of California study in 1983 that required them to stop taking their medication. The study was meant to help with the development of better treatments for mental health issues, but it unsurprisingly messed up the lives of most of the people who took part, with 90% of them eventually relapsing into psychotic episodes. One participant, Tony LaMadrid, leaped to his death from a rooftop six years later.
Pit of despair
Psychologist Harry Harlow was obsessed with the power of love, but rather than writing soppy poetry about it, Harlow preferred to perform sick and twisted experiments on monkeys. One of his experiments involved confining a chimp in total isolation within an apparatus Harlow called the “well of despair,” a featureless, empty chamber that deprived the animal of all stimuli. This often resulted in his subjects going insane, and some even starved themselves to death.
Harlow ignored the criticism of his colleagues, and is quoted as saying, “How could you love monkeys?” The last laugh was on him, however, as Harlow’s horrific treatment of his subjects is acknowledged as the driving force behind the development of the animal rights movement and the end to such cruel, useless experiments.
The Third Wave
Running along a similar theme similar to the Milgram experiment, The Third Wave was a 1967 study that set out to explore the ways in which even democratic societies can become infiltrated by the appeal of fascism. Using a class of high school students as lab rats, a system was put into place that identified some of them as members of a prestigious order, while all the others missed out. The “elite” students showed an increased motivation to learn, but also got involved in cruel practices against non-members, such as excluding and teasing them. Even worse, this behaviour continued outside of the classroom. After just four days the experiment was getting out of control and was ceased.
Homosexual aversion therapy
In the 1960s homosexuality was still classed as a mental health issue, and many individuals were sent off to be “cured” of their sexual attraction to members of the same sex (usually against their will). Treatments at the time included the horror of aversion therapy: images of a homosexual nature would be displayed on a big screen while the patient suffered electric shocks and injections that caused them to vomit. The idea behind aversion therapy was that the patient would come to associate pain and disgust with being gay. Rather than “curing” gay people, though, these experiments caused profound damage. See the documentary “A Clockwork Orange” for more information on aversion therapy.