Top 10 Unethical Psychological Experiments

Unethical psychology cover

Though psychology in the modern world is known as an influential tool that helps mitigate or even relieve patients suffering from mental disorders. It wasn’t always the case. As important as curiosity is for the growth of humanity, it can also become negative and lead to some questionable acts. Psychologists sometimes get so intrigued by the research and their experiments that they forget that there’s only a fine line between what is ethical and non-ethical that can be crossed easily. Maybe they do understand what is right and wrong but are simply under extreme pressure that they have to ignore it in the name of research and the betterment of humanity. Here are some of the psychological experiments that were extremely unethical.

Unethical Psychological Experiments

1. The Monster Study: Ever been so fixated on finding the cause of your problem that you ruin others’ lives? Probably no, but this was the mentality of a psychologist and speech pathologist, Wendell Johnson. He himself was a stutterer, however, he believed that this condition is not the result of any muscular or tissue damage but it is subject to psychological error in thinking. In 1930, Johnson with Mary Tudor took 12 orphans from Iowa Orphanage who had no speech impairment and were fluent. As the experiment started, children were separated into two groups where one group was positively reinforced by saying their speech is fluent and they have no errors, while the other group was constantly told that they were stuttering. As a result, two children improved speech patterns, others had no change, and here’s the sad part, two developed stuttering issues. You can guess which group was which. Sixty years after the experiment, those children now grown up, of course, sued the state and the university as that experiment had a life-long effect on them.

2. Robbers Cave Experiment: According to an Oklahoma psychologist, Muzafer Sherif conflict arises between two groups due to competition. However, he wanted to test his theory. He found young boys aged 11 to 12 and divided them into two groups. This experiment was conducted in Robbers Cave park, hence the name. During the first week of this experiment, both groups started to socialize with their members and became friends while doing certain activities. The next week Sherif started competing two groups in various sports and activities and deliberately altered the scores so that it seems both groups are neck and neck. Followed by the activities, both groups developed a negative prejudice against each other. Even a cool-off period was introduced but it only made matters worse and the boys were used in experiments without their consent.

3. The Milgram Experiment: I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the horrors of the holocaust that transpired in Germany. People who killed so many lives more often than not justified their actions by saying they were merely following orders. A psychologist, Stanely Milgram from Yale University wanted to test if this was true or not. He posted in the newspaper that he’ll pay people for one hour of scientific experiments. Participants were paired in a group of two, where one was acting as a teacher while the other was acting as the learner. Learners were not actually participants, they were confederates of Milgram. They both were then separated into two rooms, where the teacher was presented with electrical shocking devices ranging from 15 volts to 400 volts while the learner actor stood in a room where the teacher could see them. Then the teachers were given instructions to shock the learner, obviously, these devices were not real and learners were faking it. However, the unbeknownst teachers kept on shocking the learners just to follow instructions. Milgram found that a huge percentage of people follow instructions and are obedient over their own consciousness.

Milgram experiment

Conducting Milgram experiment, learner being sat down.

4. The Facebook Experiment:¬†As of today, Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg are publically considered unethical, however, back in 2012 this was not the case. During those times nobody even thought that social media could have a negative effect. In 2012, around 700,000 Facebook users were deliberately shown either positive or negative posts on their news feed without their consent, of course. Not only that, upon doing so the users’ updates were monitored to see if the news feed had altered their emotional state. It surely did, people with negative posts on their homepage were observed to be turning negative slowly. Once this went public, Facebook was heavily criticized and faced intense hate from the users.

Facebook bad down

Thumbs down representing people’s opinions for Facebook.

5. Operation Midnight Climax: During the hardships faced by the effects of World War 2, the military and the CIA started working on a secret project of developing mind control techniques, with the aim of controlling enemy spies and combatants. Today we understand clearly that governments cannot be trusted when it comes to secret projects. In the 1950s, this operation was led by the director of the CIA, Allen Dulles. Brothels were a popular spot during those times and female CIA agents secretly working as prostitutes were a big part of it. Uninformed clients were brought to the brothels where the agents used to slip various drugs like LSD into the drink of their victim. Followed by that, they were brought into a room that was laced with a two-way mirror so scientists could monitor the behaviors of the people on drugs as they were engaged in sexual activities. After countless experimentation, this project was finally shut down in 1960. Are there any secret ongoing government projects? Probably, but we’ll never know until they are shut down.

6. Sexual Reassignment Surgery: A Canadian boy, David Peter Reimer upon reaching the age of 7 months was undergoing routine circumcision where he was accidentally castrated. Followed by this event, a psychologist, John Money, convinced Reimer’s parents that he would have a more fulfilling and better sexual life as a female. After that, Reimer underwent sexual reassignment surgery and Money claimed that gender roles are primarily learned. This, however, was not the case, as Reimer turned 15 he began to feel he is not a girl but a boy and quickly started transitioning back to being a male. He eventually came out and expressed his story to the public to discourage similar experiments, where he highly criticized Money. Reimer lived up to the age of 38 when he finally had enough of this psychological trauma and committed suicide as he was suffering from severe depression. As for the accident that happened during the circumcision, makes you think if it really was an accident.

David Reimer-compressed

A photograph of David Peter Reimer.

7. The Little Albert Experiment: As you can see there’s a trend where psychologists use orphans for their experiments. However, this case is a little extreme. In 1920, psychologist John Watson and his future wife induced fear in an 11-month-old baby on purpose, the child’s name was Albert. In the first week of this experiment, Albert was shown images of various animals like elephants, monkeys, and so on, of course, Albert had no issues. The next week he was shown a white rat, and as usual, the child had no negative effects, but as soon as the rat was exposed to Albert, Watson produced a loud bang with bars of steel and made Albert distress. He continued to do the same for a prolonged period of time, inducing fear in little Albert. After that, Albert developed a fear and started to get anxious as soon as he saw anything that was white and fluffy. Today psychologists believe it may have long-lasting negative effects on the child, unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 6.

8. Project QKHILLTOP: Another example of psychological experiments done on innocent people by the government. CIA wanted to understand how the Chinese were brainwashing people. They thought it could be used as an interrogation technique and it was led by Harold Wolff. Being a secret project not many details are known about it, all the information provided is that the subjects were given experimental drugs, hypnotized, humiliated, deprived, and much more. Who these subjects were is a mystery.

9. Standford Prison Experiment: In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo wanted to understand the effects of being in prison for both the inmates and the guards. He hired college students for his experiments and divided them into two groups of guards and inmates and put them in a makeshift prison he and his colleagues had created. Soon the students who were playing the part of guards started showing aggression and abuse towards the prisoners meanwhile prisoners started to accept this abuse as a norm. The prisoners started showing signs of depression and developed anxiety. Though the experiment was set to last for two weeks it was shut off early when Zimbardo’s future wife interrupted and said he was causing harm to these people.

10. Harlow’s Monkeys: Psychologist Harry Harlow believed that children only stay around their parents because they see them as nothing but their source of food. So in 1950, he conducted his cruel experiment on monkeys. He made the mother monkey use a cloth and then that cloth was used as a representation of the mother for the baby monkey. He made two separate boxes where the first box was made just out of metal wire but bottles full of milk were placed inside while in the other container, no food was kept but it was soft and a furry doll with the mentioned cloth was surrogated for the mother. The baby monkey destroyed Harlow’s theory by clinging to the doll and crying for their mother. Still, it was a cruel experiment nonetheless.

Harlow monkey

A monkey clinging to a surrogate mother.

As everything has two sides, one positive and one negative so does psychology, however, these experiments are the example of the negative side. Psychology in itself is nothing but a study and sum of theories, it is these practices and the unethical personality of these psychologists that gave us such heart-breaking experiments.



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