10 unethical psychological experiments from the history of science

FOR DISCOVERY OR DEVELOPMENT, SCIENTISTS ARE GOING TO THE MOST AMAZING EXPERIMENTS : For example, they are trying to determine the genre of a film by the composition of the air in the theater or they are inventing bacterial batteries . But there is little that compares in complexity to even the most seemingly unsophisticated psychological experiment. The behavior of the human psyche is difficult to predict, it is important to take into account the maximum risks, consider the consequences in the long term and, of course, strictly observe confidentiality .           

Modern ethical postulates, which are guided by the authors of research with human participation, began to form long ago – starting with ten points of the Nuremberg Code , adopted in 1947 as a response to the monstrous medical experiments of Joseph Mengele in concentration camps. Then came the Declaration of Helsinki , the report of Belmont , the leadership of international organizations of the Council for Medical Sciences (CIOMS) 1993 and other declarations and resolutions. They started talking about psychological experiments later – and now the whole world is guided by the annually updated recommendations of the American Psychological Association. We are talking about the most controversial (and simply inhuman) experiments with the psyche of humans and animals, which today would hardly pass the test of the ethics committee.                       

Experiment “Little Albert”

It all happened in 1920 at Johns Hopkins University, where Professor John Watson and his graduate student Rosalie Reiner, inspired by the success of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the formation of conditioned reflexes in dogs, wanted to see if this was possible in humans. They conducted a study of classical conditioning (conditioned reflex creation), trying to develop a reaction in a person to an object that was previously neutral. The research participant was a nine-month-old baby, identified in the documents as “Albert B.”           

Checking the boy’s reactions to objects and animals, Watson noticed that the baby had a special sympathy for the white rat. After several neutral demonstrations, the demonstration of the white rat began to be accompanied by a blow of a hammer on the metal – as a result, any subsequent demonstration of the white rat and other furry animals was accompanied by panic in Albert and a clearly negative reaction, even when there was no sound .         

It is difficult to imagine what could have turned out for the child with similar manipulations psyche – but we do not know it: Albert is supposed to have died from not related to the experiment of the disease in the age of six. In 2010, the American Psychological Association was able to identify “Albert B.” – It turned out to be Douglas Merritt, the son of a local nurse who received only a dollar for his participation in the study. Although there is a version that it could have been a certain Albert Barger.              

“Bystander effect”

This experiment was conducted in 1968 by John Darley and Bibb Latane, showing an interest in crime witnesses who did nothing to help the victim. The authors were especially interested in the murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese, who was beaten to death in front of many people who did not try to stop the perpetrator. A few reservations about this crime: first, it is important to bear in mind that the information on the “38 witnesses” of whom wrote The Times, not been confirmed in court. Secondly, most of the witnesses, as to them or was not seen murder, and only heard the incoherent shouts and were assured that it was “an ordinary quarrel between friends”.                      

Darley and Latane conducted an experiment in an auditorium at Columbia University, where each participant was asked to fill out a simple questionnaire, and after a while smoke began to seep into the room. It turned out that if the participant was alone in the room, he reported smoke much faster than if someone else was nearby. Thus, the authors confirmed the existence of the “bystander effect”, which implies that “it is not me who should act , but others.” Gradually, the experiments became less and less ethical – and from smoke as a factor in verification, Darley and Latane switched to using a recording with the voice of a person who needs urgent medical attention. Of course, without informing the participants of the experiment that the heart attack was simulated by the actor.                 

Milgram’s experiment

The author of this experiment , Stanley Milgram, said that he wanted to understand what made the respectable citizens of the Third Reich participate in the brutal acts of the Holocaust. And how could the Gestapo officer Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the mass extermination of Jews, declare in court that he did nothing special, but “just kept order.”          

In each test, the pair took part “student” and “teacher”. Although Milgram spoke of a random distribution of roles, in reality, the research participant was always the “teacher” and the “student” was the hired actor. They were placed in adjoining rooms, and the “teacher” was asked to press a button that sent the “student” a small shock every time he gave the wrong answer. The “teacher” knew that with each subsequent press, the discharge increased, as evidenced by the groans and screams from the next room. In fact, there was no current , and the screams and pleas were just a successful acting game – Milgram wanted to see how far a person endowed with unconditional power was ready to go. As a result, the scientist concluded that if the current discharges were real, most of the “teachers” would kill their “students”.                    

Despite the controversial ethical component, Milgram’s experiment was recently repeated by Polish scientists led by psychologist Tomasz Grzib. As in the original version, there was no current here , and the moderator continued to insist on continuing the experiment, using the phrases ” you have no choice” and “have to continue.” As a result, 90% of the participants continued to press the button, despite the screams of the person in the next room. True, if a woman was in the role of a “student”, the “teachers” refused to continue three times more often than if a man was in her place.                      

Harlow’s experiments with monkeys  

In the 1950s, Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin studied infant addiction using baby rhesus monkeys. They were weaned from their mother, replaced by two fake monkeys – one made of cloth and one made of wire. At the same time, the “mother” made of a soft towel had no additional function, and the wire one fed the monkey from a bottle. The toddler, however, spent most of the day with the soft “mother” and only about an hour a day next to the “mother” made of wire.                 

Harlow also used intimidation to prove that it was the “mother” that was excreted by the monkey . He deliberately frightened the monkeys, watching which model they would run to. In addition, he experimented with isolating small monkeys from society to prove that those who did not learn to be part of a group in infancy would not be able to assimilate and mate as they get older. Harlow experiments were terminated due to the rules of the APA, aimed at the cessation of ill-treatment both with people and with animals. 

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