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The Five Worst Psychological Experiments of All Time



The brain is full of mystery and science is constantly prodding the depths of the human psyche in an attempt to better understand humans. While it is clear that no test will ever explain every mystery contained within the brain, this has not stopped science from conducting experiments in the hope of discovering who we are as a species. Even the best intentions, however, can go horribly awry.

Stanford Prison Experiment (1971)

Stanford University psychologist Phillip Zimbardo developed an experiment to study how human behavior is influenced by environmental circumstances. Two dozen students were chosen to act out the roles of guard and prisoner in a makeshift prison. The experiment was to last two weeks. Those assigned to portray guards, including Zimbardo, became hostile and abusive, while the prisoner stand-ins displayed marked anxiety. It took a graduate student observing the degrading behavior to convince researchers to shut the experiment down eight days early. The Stanford Prison Experiment is roundly considered science gone wrong.

Little Albert (1920)

A psychologist named John Watson decided to conduct an experiment to determine how fears are born. Watson used an orphaned baby whom he called Albert. It started by allowing Albert to freely play with a white rat and other white, soft items. After two months, Watson initiated conditions to induce fear in the boy.

When Albert would pet the rat, Watson began creating loud noises, banging on steel with a hammer. This caused Albert to cry and not long after, just seeing the rat created fear and distress. Albert’s response quickly grew to include not only fear of the rat but of anything white or soft. Watson intended to deprogram Albert’s fear, but he was fired before that happened. Watson destroyed all documentation associated with the experiment. No one knows what happened to Albert afterward.

The Monster Study (1939)

A speech pathologist from Iowa, Dr. Wendell Johnson, conducted an experiment using orphans to uncover the cause of stuttering. Dr. Johnson did not believe it was an inborn trait, but a learned one. The goal was honorable, yet the methods used were questionable. The orphans were divided into one group of stutterers and another group of non-stutterers. Those who did not stutter were praised for their normal speaking manner. Those who did stutter were yelled at, belittled, and criticized.

When the study concluded, several non-stuttering children had developed a stutter, while many stutterers found their condition worse than at the start of the experiment. Feeling confident that he had, in fact, successfully proven that stuttering was developmental and not inborn, Dr. Johnson packed his things and left, leaving the children behind. For most of these kids, reversal methods failed. They were left with no parents and to carry a lifelong sense of failure, courtesy of the speech pathologist who knew nothing about psychology. In 2007, several of the orphaned participants were awarded $1 million for emotional damage.

Milgram Experiment (1961)

Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to test how obedient to authority his test subjects would be. An unwitting teacher was chosen to pose questions with multiple-choice answers to students in another room. For every incorrect answer, the teacher was instructed to administer an electric shock to the student. Every wrong answer meant an increase in voltage. While no one was being shocked, prerecorded screams of pain played when a student was “zapped.” As the voltage increased, the screams were louder.

Students were instructed to beat on walls and shout for the teacher to stop shocking them. A teacher asking to stop would be told, up to four times, that the study must go on and he or she must continue administering the shocks. If the teacher expressed concern four times, the test was stopped. Only 14 of the 40 teachers used reached the fourth attempt to stop. The bottom line is that a large majority of the teachers continued to issue painful, possibly fatal shocks simply because an authority figure told them to.

Project MK-ULTRA (1953)

The Central Intelligence Agency wanted to create the kind of soldier who would follow any command, regardless of how horrifying it was. The goal was an un-feeling and un-questioning military force. Mind control may sound like science fiction, but that was the goal of the CIA. The top-secret experiment used tactics both legal and illegal, with and without consent. Doctors delivered many drugs to soldiers. Experiments were conducted on CIA employees, military members, doctors, prostitutes, and the mentally ill.

They wanted to develop soldiers able to withstand torture and coercion. Unfortunately, there were undesirable effects, such as amnesia, inability to think logically, impulsivity, paralysis, and confusion. An executive order by President Gerald Ford was meant to prohibit human experimentation involving drugs or fraud. The CIA destroyed files pertaining to MK-ULTRA. The tragedy is that most of the effects proved irreparable, including brain damage in subjects exposed to the experiment.

Experimentation will continue to have a proper place in a civilized society. The problem lies in the motive of the researcher. Even good intentions can lead to devastating consequences, as shown here in these five twisted examples.