Scientific experiments on humans are the Holy Grail when it comes to the psychological study of human behavior, as testing on animals such as rats or monkeys can only get a researcher so far. But with human testing comes a very different set of ethics, and the infamous human studies listed below may have violated an innate moral code. These experiments focus on the study of gender, mind control, conformity, psychological conditioning, sexuality, memory, mental illness, aggression, and more.
Subject college students to a prison environment? Check. Condition a baby until it's afraid of Santa Claus? You bet. Tell orphans they have terrible speech problems to generate terrible speech problems? That's been done, too. However, some social experiments backfire on researchers, leading to further complications. And all of these historical studies have received criticism from both the public and the scientific community for the researchers' treatment of subjects.
To study human behavior and experiment on real people can lead to critical breakthroughs, or they can cause irreversible problems. These experiments did both. Whatever you think about these studies, many of them are of the most famous psychology experiments ever conducted.
Bruce Reimer was the subject of a gender study conducted by a psychologist from Johns Hopkins University, Dr. John Money, from 1965 to 1980, to see whether gender was innate or conditioned. Reimer experienced a botched circumcision in infancy during which his member was mangled beyond repair. Money thought that Reimer would have a better life being given female genitalia and conditioned to grow up as a female. Reimer grew up as "Brenda" and until age 15, didn't know he was born male despite behaving like a boy.
During childhood, Money continued to condition Reimer to "act" female and forced him and his twin brother to enact various sexual poses and genital inspection, as Money argued childhood sexual rehearsal played a role in adult gender identity formation. When he was 15, his father told him the truth. Reimer began to identify as a man and changed his name to David. He identified as a male throughout the rest of his adult life, however, he was severely traumatized by his childhood. He tragically took his own life at age 38.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford prison experiment took place over the span of one week in August in 1971. The experiment studied the psychological effects of young men becoming either a prisoner or prison guard. Head researcher, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, allowed the study to continue uninterrupted while prisoners were subject to assault as psychological torture at the hands of the guards. In fact, he encouraged it, telling the guards:
You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they'll have no privacy [...] We're going to take away their individuality in various ways.
Some examples of abuse included guards harming prisoners with fire extinguishers, refusing to let prisoners urinate or defecate in anything but a bucket, and forcing them to sleep on concrete. The study, which was supposed to last 14 days, was abruptly stopped after 6 due to the chaos.
The Milgram Experiment
The Milgram experiment was a series of psychology experiments that measured participants' willingness to obey an authority figure when said authority figure instructed the participants to complete acts that were in contrast with the participants' values. The study took place on the Yale University campus in 1961 and was administered by Dr. Stanley Milgram.
The idea of the study was to see, like the Third Reich doctors claimed, if it was possible for good people to "just be following orders." In the experiment, a student was instructed to issue electroshocks to a subject with a heart condition whenever the subject answered incorrect questions. In reality, the shocks weren't real and the subject was an actor, but the decision by the student to administer the shocks to the pleading subject was.
Before the study, Dr. Milgram predicted only 3.5% of students would shock the subject at the maximum voltage allowed, but 65% of students did. The results of the experiment supported the hypothesis that it's possible for people to obey orders when they are in opposition to their conscience.
The Monster Study
The Monster Study was a speech therapy study conducted on 22 orphan children in Davenport, IA, in 1939. Dr. Wendell Johnson, a University of Iowa professor, oversaw the experiment. The children were separated into two groups in which half were praised for their speech while the others, many with no speech problems, were belittled for every word they said and were told they were stuttering. At the end of the study, the children reportedly experienced adverse changes:
Sixth, every subject reacted to his speech interruptions in some manner. Some hung their heads: others gasped and covered their mouths with their hands; others laughed with embarrassment. In every case the children’s behavior changed noticeably.
Many of the children in the belittled group developed permanent speech problems.