10 Behavioral Experiments That Went Terribly Wrong

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Behavioral experiments are not evil by default. They’re just science doing what science does best: To better understand how we behave, researchers sometimes have to conduct a test or two. However, every once in a while, those tests go so badly wrong that the end result seems more like a horror movie than a well thought-out scientific experiment. Let’s take a look at some of the most terrifying cases.

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10. The Mouse Utopia

From the 1950s to 1970s, animal behavior researcher John Calhoun built artificial environments for rodents to study their behavior. In 1972, he attempted to create heaven for eight mice … who promptly went and turned it into hell in a self-destructive pattern called “the behavioral sink.”

Calhoun designed the structure as an ultimate utopia for a mouse: There were beautiful buildings, communal spaces, ample personal quarters and an unlimited supply of food. He called his creation “Universe 25,” and because it was indeed the 25th environment he had created, he had a pretty good idea that things might not stay heavenly for too long. His hunch was correct, as the mice used their paradise to procreate as rapidly as they could. By Day 560 of the experiment, the population of Universe 25 reached a whopping 2,200 rodents, who proceeded to prove that even for animals, hell is other people. Most mice spent every second of their lives surrounded by hundreds of their kin. Apathy and annoyance were the prevailing moods, as the mice hunched in the main squares, waiting to be fed and occasionally attacking each other. Very few pregnancies were carried to term, and females treated their litters as afterthoughts that were soon forgotten.

The reason most of the mice were hunched up in the common spaces was even creepier than their bored apathy. It was because the limited secluded spaces were taken up by “The Beautiful Ones” — an elite class that formed within the mouse society of Universe 25. Guarded by wildly territorial males that prevented the rest of the population from entering the premises, these largely female populations spent their entire existence grooming themselves, eating, and sleeping. The “common” mice seemed to accept this state of affairs, to the point that when the inevitable violence started eating away the population, the Beautiful Ones were spared from the massacre. However, at that point, they were so out of touch with reality that they could not procreate, or care for their young, or even understand basic social behavior. The whole population was doomed beyond the point of restoration.

9. Operation Midnight Climax

Between 1953 and 1964, the CIA dabbled with a particularly unsavory behavioral project called Operation Midnight Climax. It was a top secret operation known only to the highest command of the agency and its Technical Support Division, and its aim was simple: Find out how to influence unwary people with drugs and induce mind control. The experiment was helmed by a multi-agency veteran named George Hunter White, who decided to accomplish his goal by establishing CIA-sponsored brothels in New York and San Francisco. There, government-funded prostitutes lured thousands of unwitting men to nights of sordid sessions filled with sex, drugs, and booze, while CIA operatives observed through two-way mirrors and recorded the mind-altering sessions.

The absurd experiment was already so insane that Time magazine would later note that the CIA “appeared to be experiencing its own form of madness,” but it soon devolved into sheer lunacy, as they started accomplishing the “mind control” part of their goal by … just using the compromising material they gathered to blackmail the unsuspecting test subjects to do their bidding. All along, George Hunter White loomed over everything like a strange, government-sponsored supervillain. He would watch the drugged-out sex sessions while downing martinis, and heavily abused alcohol and drugs himself to get through his mission.

Despite all the mind-bending insanity involved in the process, it appears that Operation Midnight Climax may have been a success in its own, strange way. In 2013, a psychiatrist who had been examining some old CIA documents discovered a hidden purpose for the experiment: They were also experimenting on the prostitutes. By putting them under conditions that mimicked field operations, the agency was testing them to see whether they’d make good field agents or spies.

8. The Facial Expressions Experiment

Before psychology got around to establishing some basic ground rules about things like traumatizing people for the sake of science and killing animals to see how people would react, we had researchers like Carney Landis. In 1924, he wanted to see if all humans make the same facial expressions as a response to the same stimulus. Because he didn’t trust people to make their expressions voluntarily in a “What face do you make when you’re happy” way, he decided to induce those emotions for real.

This would have been all well and good for his test subjects when it came to things like physical pleasure, curiosity, happy anticipation and laughter. Unfortunately, Landis wasn’t interested in happiness. The emotions he wanted to research were pain, disgust, fear, sadness and other negative ones, so his subjects found themselves sticking their hands in buckets full of frogs, and receiving electrical shocks. As a final coup de grace, Landis took a mouse, and told the subject that they now had to behead the poor rodent. Shockingly, quite a few people complied: Roughly a third of the people who Landis presented with the task grabbed the rodent, and removed its head as best they could. The others had to watch while Landis beheaded the animal himself. Ultimately, all of those poor creatures had to die in vain: All Landis found out was that different people express the same feelings with a vast array of different facial expressions, which … kind of seems like a pretty obvious discovery that probably didn’t require a bunch of people to tear the heads off animals.

7. The LSD Elephant

In 1962, doctor Louis Jolyon West and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma wanted to see whether the then fairly new drug LSD can induce violent behavior … on elephants. Why they were interested in this is anyone’s guess, though it must be noted that West probably had ties with the CIA’s shady MKUltra program. The experiment’s subject was Tusko, the prized bull elephant of the Oklahoma City Zoo. The intended goal was to see whether the drug could cause “musth” — a condition where the animal’s testosterone production increases and it becomes markedly aggressive. Unfortunately, no one involved thought to do the math on precisely how much LSD an elephant could take, so they just settled on “a lot.” The three-ton Tusko was injected with a ridiculous 297 milligrams of the drug, which is over 30 times more than a human of the same weight could safely receive.

They say that an elephant never forgets, but if Tusko’s first drug trip was a memorable one, he didn’t have the opportunity to remember it for too long. After only five minutes, he trumpeted, fell over, emptied his bowels and went into violent convulsions. The researchers tried to fix his massive overdose by overdosing him again, this time with antipsychotics. When this didn’t help, West pumped poor Tusko full of tranquilizers, which finally killed the animal. The whole process took one hour and 40 minutes.

The study remains highly controversial, and a great deal of it can probably be explained by the persistent rumors that Dr. West himself was tripping on acid throughout the process. Although he attributed the elephant’s death to LSD, others believe that the absurd chemical cocktail he pumped into Tusko was the real culprit. In 1984, a psychologist named Ronald K. Siegel actually proved this by repeating the experiment on two different elephants, using only LSD this time. Both animals survived.

6. The UCLA Schizophrenia Experiment

In the late 1980s, psychologists at the UCLA set up a federally funded experiment that treated and monitored a group of schizophrenics in order to better understand their condition. The problem was that their methods were slightly less than ethical: First, they treated the patients as best they could, but in 1989, the doctors wanted to see how patients would respond if they took them off their medication.

The result was an unmitigated disaster. By 1990, one patient went from a well-adjusted individual with a 3.8 college GPA to an emotional wreck who threatened his mother with a butcher knife and attempted to hitchhike to Washington to assassinate the President Bush, who he perceived as an alien spy. The next year, another subject committed suicide by jumping off a UCLA building.

The study was bombarded with lawsuits from the subjects’ families and criticism from the government and mental health organizations. The Citizens for Responsible Care in Psychiatry and Research organization described it as an experiment in cold-turkey withdrawal in medication. A common complaint was that the consent forms provided by the researchers were unclear and didn’t bother to mention that the vast majority of schizophrenics relapse when taken off their medication, and that once the researchers noticed that a patient’s mental health was deteriorating, it took them far too long to put the subject back on medication. The doctors, on the other hand, complained that they were literally unable to give their part of the story: Although the patients could freely discuss the experiment, confidentiality laws prevented the researchers themselves from doing so in detail.   

5. Hofling hospital experiment



The Hofling hospital experiment was a 1966 study that involved a fake doctor, a fake drug and 22 very real, unwitting nurses. The “doctor” would call each nurse during their night shift at a hospital, and ask them to check if they had a certain drug. After the nurse found the drug (in actuality, just sugar pills in a bottle) and replied affirmatively, the doctor would ask them to administer a gross, dangerous overdose to a patient called “Mr. Jones.” Although this would require the doctor to sign an authorization form, the doctor said he was in a terrible hurry, so he’d drop by later and sign the paperwork.

Everything about the experiment was rigged for the drug not to be administered. If the nurse would inject it to a patient, she’d have to break no less than three hospital rules: Nurses were not allowed to accept instructions over the phone. The amount of drug the doctor ordered was double the maximum limit stated in the instructions of the box. Also, the medicine itself was unauthorized and not on the ward stock list. Despite all of these rules and precautions, the results were chilling: 21 out of the 22 test subjects were easily goaded into carrying out the instructions and “overdosing” the patient at the orders of a random voice on the phone.

4. Sigmund Freud’s nose treatment

Emma Eckstein was one of Sigmund Freud’s early patients, who came to him to seek treatment for her anxiety. Unfortunately, among her assorted symptoms was a tendency to get nosebleeds, and unknown to her, Freud had a massive fixation about noses, which he closely associated with genitalia. There are many versions of the story between Eckstein and Freud, and some aspects of it were strange enough that Freud’s descendants prefer to keep some of their correspondence hidden from the public. Here’s the part of the story most people seem to agree on: Though Freud considered Eckstein’s nasal issues entirely psychogenic in nature, he nevertheless decided to experiment a bit and fixated his attentions on the nose.

Freud took his patient to Wilhelm Fliess, an otolaryngologist who had operated on his own nose in the past, and had Fliess operate on Eckstein’s nose. The operation was a dramatic failure that nearly killed the patient. Eckstein’s nose (and eventually, mouth) hemorrhaged even worse than before, and eventually started smelling and went septic. The frightened Freud called in surgeons from Vienna, who eventually managed to clean out the nose … and discovered a 20-inch piece of infected gauze that had been left inside the nasal cavity.

Eckstein took the whole situation surprisingly well, even gently mocking the shocked Freud when he escaped the operating room to recharge with a stiff shot of cognac. On the other hand, Freud’s coping mechanisms were less than refined. In a textbook example of what he himself would later define as “denial,” he convinced himself that the whole situation was an honest accident that could have happened to anyone.

3. The Stimoceiver experiment

Jose Manuel Rodriguez Delgado was a Yale professor in the 1960s, and his subject of expertise was as crazy as it gets. He was all about mind control, but unlike some others on this list, he didn’t resort to drugs. Instead, he preferred brain chips. A peer-reviewed pioneer of the brain implant technology, Delgado plied his trade at an age where ethical regulations were still largely nonexistent, which enabled him to go full mad scientist in ways that rival (and occasionally even surpass) modern technology. In 1965, he famously managed to stop a charging bull mid-attack with a radio signal to an implant in its brain. He also created the “stimoceiver,” an electrode device that could manipulate the brain to experience and display various emotions on animals and humans alike.

Unfortunately, when he actually tested it on human subjects, said manipulation sometimes proved to be less than accurate. Over the years, Delgado installed his stimoceivers on an estimated 25 subjects, mostly schizophrenics and epileptics at the State Hospital for Mental Diseases in Howard, Rhode Island. He was as ethical about it as the circumstances allowed, as everyone who received the chip took it willingly, and it was only used as a last resort that he described as little more than a more humane alternative to lobotomy. However, the stimoceiver turned out to be an unreliable tool for the human brain. Although Delgado could influence the patients’ level of aggression and even induce some uncontrolled movement in their limbs, he was (perhaps fortunately) unable to play the human brain like a violin. Some otherwise prim and proper patients became clearly aroused and started flirting with the researchers. Others became happy and chatty, but the results could not necessarily be replicated. In one instance, a perfectly calm patient suddenly became furious when her temporal lobe was stimulated.

2. The “Monster Study”

The “Monster study” of 1939 was not originally called as such. In fact, its only aim was to study stuttering and other speech issues, but the brutal methods of Dr. Wendell Johnson and his staff gained the experiment its nickname once the world found out about it in 2001. Dr. Johnson had a theory that stuttering was a learned behavior that can be induced in children, and set out to test this by taking 22 orphans and dividing them into two groups.

The control group were treated as regular children. The 11 kids in the other group, on the other hand, had it bad. For six months, Johnson and his staff constantly harassed, belittled and baited them about their speech impediment, despite the fact that only half of them showed any sign of stuttering. This negative therapy didn’t actually cause any of the “stutterer” children to start stuttering, but many of them became extremely sensitive about their speech, experienced loss of self-esteem, and developed lifelong psychological problems. Perhaps recognizing the vast ethics issues with the experiment, the University of Iowa kept it secret for decades until one of Johnson’s underlings revealed the story to newspapers in 2001. The university has since issued an apology, and the state settled the inevitable lawsuit by the surviving test subjects and their estates by paying a compensation of $925,000 per plaintiff.

1. The Third Wave experiment

What does it take for a regular person to become a Nazi? In 1967, a 25-year-old social studies teacher in Palo Alto, California conducted an experiment to figure out the answer, and found out to his terror that it was, “Not a lot, really.” In an attempt to teach his 10th grade students about the various events that led up to the Holocaust, Ron James decided to show his class just how easy it was to be swept up by charismatic leaders and alluring ideologies. As a well-liked teacher, Jones decided to make himself the figurehead of his demonstration. After informing the students that they were about to do an improvised “non-threatening experiment”; he started to act more stern than usual, and created a hardline set of rules that was to be obeyed in his classroom. He had meant it to be just a one-day thing, but when he arrived in the classroom the next day, all the students were sitting neatly at their desks and saluting him in unison. The bewildered, yet intrigued Jones decided to continue the experiment a little longer. He informed the students that the ones willing to participate would get an automatic ‘A’, but any attempts to overthrow him would be awarded with an ‘F’. Those who would not play along would be banished to  the school library.

Over the next couple of days, the class conformed to Jones’ new system, which he called the Third Wave. He introduced Nazi-like hand salutes, even more rigid discipline than before, and a strange project that aimed to “eliminate democracy.” The students constructed banners bearing the movement’s logo and unity-inducing slogans such as “Strength Through Discipline.” Jones prohibited his students from gathering in groups larger than two or three, and even declared that the rules of the Third Wave also applied outside of school — and even at home.

By Day 4, Jones understood that he’d lost control of the experiment. The Third Wave had spread like wildfire within school and now featured more members than he had students in the first place. Informants were snitching on other students who had broken the movement’s rules, and the ensuing atmosphere of fear and uncertainty had broken down all lines of communication within the student body. There was even an active resistance movement.

Jones decided that the experiment had to end, but wanted it to go out with a bang. He announced that the Third Wave was in fact part of a larger national movement that was about to announce its presidential candidate, and asked everyone to attend a rally at the auditorium. When the newly-fascist students were all seated, Jones unveiled a screen that only played static. After a few minutes of extremely uncomfortable silence, Jones stated that the whole thing had been an experiment in planting the seeds of fascism. Then, he made everyone watch a film about Nazism.


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