Psychology as we know it is a relatively young science, but since its inception it has helped us to gain a greater understanding of ourselves and our interactions with the world. Many psychological experiments have been valid and ethical, allowing researchers to make new treatments and therapies available, and giving other insights into our motivations and actions. Sadly, others have ended up backfiring horribly — ruining lives and shaming the profession. Here are ten psychological experiments that spiraled out of control.
5. Milgram Experiment
The Milgram Experiment underway
In 1963, in the wake of the atrocities of the Holocaust, Stanley Milgram set out to test the hypothesis that there was something special about the German people that had allowed them to participate in genocide. Under the pretense of an experiment into human learning, Milgram asked normal members of the public to ask questions to a man attached to an electric-shock generator and shock him in increasing measure when he answered incorrectly. The man was an actor, the shocks fake; but the participants didn’t know this. The terrifying part? People overwhelmingly obeyed the commands of the experimenter, even when the man screamed in apparent agony and begged for mercy. A little evil in all of us, perhaps?
4. Tony LaMadrid
Many medicated schizophrenics enrolled in a University of California study that required them to stop taking their medication in a program that started in 1983. The study was meant to give information that would allow doctors to better treat schizophrenia, but rather it messed up the lives of many of the test subjects, 90% of whom relapsed into episodes of mental illness. One participant, Tony LaMadrid, leaped to his death from a rooftop six years after first enrolling in the study.
3. Pit of Despair
A rhesus monkey infant in one of Harlow’s isolation chambers
Psychologist Harry Harlow was obsessed with the concept of love, but rather than writing poems or love songs, he performed sick, twisted experiments on monkeys during the 1970s. One of his experiments revolved around confining the monkeys in total isolation in an apparatus he called the “well of despair” (a featureless, empty chamber depriving the animal of any stimulus or socialization) — which resulted in his subjects going insane and even starving themselves to death in two cases. 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 his horrific treatment of his subjects is acknowledged as being a driving force behind the development of the animal rights movement and the end of such cruel experiments.
2. The Third Wave
Running along a similar theme similar to the Milgram experiment, The Third Wave, carried out in 1967, was an experiment 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, the experimenter created a system whereby some students were considered members of a prestigious order. The students showed increased motivation to learn, yet, more worryingly, became eager to get on board with malevolent practices, such as excluding and ostracizing non-members from the class. Even more scarily, this behavior was gleefully continued outside of the classroom. After just four days, the experiment was considered to be slipping out of control and was ceased.
1. David Reimer
In 1966, when David Reimer was 8 months old, his circumcision was botched and he lost his penis to burns. Psychologist John Money suggested that baby David be given a sex change. The parents agreed, but what they didn’t know was that Money secretly wanted to use David as part of an experiment to prove his views that gender identity was not inborn, but rather determined by nature and upbringing. David was renamed Brenda, surgically altered to have a vagina, and given hormonal supplements — but tragically the experiment backfired. “Brenda” acted like a stereotypical boy throughout childhood, and the Reimer family began to fall apart. At 14, Brenda was told the truth, and decided to go back to being David. He committed suicide at the age of 38.