10 Psychological Experiments That Went Horribly Wrong


In his 1961 book Madness and Civilization, theorist Michel Foucault argues that an effective method for revealing a society’s sociocultural values is by determining whom its citizens attempt to marginalize. Focusing on Europe, Foucault examined which conditions were considered madness from 1500 to 1800. According to Foucault, what is classified as a psychological disorder in a particular time period and how those diagnosed with that disorder are treated both illustrate a society’s values and its hypocrisies. Some of these psychological experiments may seem unthinkable, or at least unconscionable. Perhaps they showcase human ambition, or perhaps they confirm humans’ callousness.

10. The Milgrim Experiment

Stanley Milgrim, a psychologist at Yale University, was intrigued by the Nuremberg Trials, 13 criminal trials of Nazis of various ranks conducted in Nuremburg, Germany between 1945 and 1949. Milgrim noticed almost all of the defendants made a similar argument. They all claimed they had simply been obeying the orders of an authority figure. Milgrim wondered: were the atrocities of the Holocaust truly atrocities, or were they actions any person ostensibly obeying authority could be convinced to commit? In 1963, Milgrim recruited 40 male students and employees at Yale, ranging in age from 20 to 50. He told his volunteers that he was conducting an experiment to determine how receiving punishment for providing incorrect answers affected a subject’s learning capacity. Briefing each volunteer individually, Milgrim said he would divide volunteers into randomly assigned roles by drawing lots. One would be a learner, and another would be a teacher. In fact, the drawing of the lots was rigged. Every Yale student or employee was assigned the role of a teacher. The role of the learner was always assigned to Wallace, a partner in Milgrim’s experiment.

The teacher watched as the learner was strapped into a chair, with electrodes attached to his body. Then the teacher was taken to another room. After the teacher and the learner had been separated, the leader (Milgrim) instructed the teacher to read various word pairings aloud to the learner. If the learner didn’t correctly choose the right companion word next time one word in the pairing was read aloud to him, the teacher was instructed to give him an electric shock, increasing the voltage each time. Wallace frequently provided incorrect answers, by design. Though he wasn’t actually receiving a shock, he behaved as though he was. There were 30 settings on the shock generator, ranging from 15 volts (a slight shock) to 450 (a potentially fatal shock).

Before the experiment began, the leader informed the teacher of the possible effects each increase in voltage might have on the learner. If the teacher was reluctant to administer a shock, the leader gave him one of four prompts, with each prompt increasing in severity and urgency. Before the experiment, Milgrim predicted only 3% of the teachers would deliver a potentially fatal shock to the learner. In fact, two-thirds of the teachers delivered a potentially fatal shock to the learner, and all of them delivered a shock of 300 volts. In his 1974 article “The Perils of Obedience,” Milgrim concluded the deciding factor determining the teachers’ behavior was whether they were permitted to deny responsibility for their actions. When Milgrim, as the leader, said he would assume responsibility for a teacher’s actions, the teacher wasn’t reluctant to harm the learner.

9. Sheridan and King’s Puppy

Now the primary value of the Milgrim experiment is its cultural notoriety due to Milgrim’s ethical compromise, since he deceived the participants regarding the nature of the experiment. Variations of the Milgrim experiment are used in Griselda Gambaro’s 1971 play Information for Forigners, and a 2014 episode of the American crime drama series Bones, entitled “The Mutilation of the Master Manipulator.” In both cases, the experiment is a symbol of how exercising power over others degrades one’s humanist values. In its time, however, Milgrim’s experiment was well regarded, and other scientists sought to verify his results.

Scientists Charles Sheridan and Richard King believed the actions of some participants in Milgrim’s experiment may have been influenced by their knowledge that the learner was actually an actor who wasn’t getting hurt. To test this hypothesis, Sheridan and King replicated the conditions of Milgrim’s experiment, with one horrifying difference: like Milgrim, they deceived participants regarding the nature of the experiments, saying they wanted to see if a puppy could distinguish between steady and flickering light. As in Milgrim’s experiment, participants were instructed to shock the puppy when he acted wrongly. Unlike in Milgrim’s experiment, the participants were actually shocking the puppyThe suffering puppy barked, jumped, and howled. The participants’ distress mounted with the puppy’s. They gestured frantically to him, trying to indicate the appropriate behavior. Nonetheless, 20 of the 26 participants delivered a shock at the maximum voltage to the puppy.

8. Homosexual Conversion Therapy

The Europeans’ criminalization of homosexuality coincided with the consolidation of the Christian faith. After Queen Isabella of Castille’s Spanish Inquisition of 1483 — a relentless scourge of any citizens whose personal or religious practices contradicted those sanctioned by the Catholic church — 1,600 men were stoned, castrated, or burned as sodomites. Though the sociocultural and sociopolitical organizing power of those in Western Europe and America who identify as homosexual has changed over time, conversion therapy has remined a consistent practice. Conversion therapy is the practice of using physical and psychological stimuli in order to create negative experiences associated with homosexual arousal.

Previously, techniques used for conversion therapy included institutionalization, castration, and electroconvulsive therapy. According to a 2009 report by the American Psychological Association, current techniques include inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis while showing the patient homoerotic images, providing electric shocks, having the individual snap an elastic band around the wrist when aroused by same-sex erotic images or thoughts, and using shame to create aversion to same-sex attractions. The practice of conversion therapy has been discredited by the scientific community. However, some religious communities still embrace it. As recently as 2017, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy made a donation to Exodus International, a Christian based group promoting conversion therapy.

7. The True Story of John/Joan

In John Colapinto’s 1997 article for Rolling Stone, “The True Story of John/Joan,” he writes about a baby girl who was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1967. The plot twist: the baby born at Johns Hopkins wasn’t born a baby girl. After a botched circumcision, baby (then) John’s parents brought him back to Johns Hopkins. Encouraged by Dr. John Money, who believed gender identification was determined primarily by parents’ nurturing techniques (as opposed to biology), John’s parents agreed to let Money perform a sexual reassignment on their son, whom they raised as Joan. Technically, John’s sexual reassignment wasn’t complete. Money removed John’s penis, but he didn’t create a vagina. John’s (a pseudonym) sexual reassignment was the first performed on a child whose physical development was normal.

It was significant to Money for another reason. John’s identical twin, Kevin (also a pseudonym), provided an ideal one-person control group for Money’s study of the psychological effects of John’s sexual reassignment surgery. Even before he knew the circumstances of his birth, John was socially isolated and psychologically compromised. After struggling in school due to students’ ostracism and his own suicidal thoughts, John stopped living as a girl in 1979. That year, his father told him the truth about his birth. Though he was raised as a girl, he wasn’t born one. By the age of 21, he had undergone two penis reconstruction surgeries. John’s identity was later revealed to be David Reimer, and he later married and became the stepfather to three children. Tragically, in 2004 he was no longer able to fight off those suicidal thoughts, and took his own life

6. Phrenology

Beginning in 1805, Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall toured Europe, introducing audiences to his new technique for psychological analysis. In Gall’s technique, phrenology, the shape of one’s skull was taken as an indication of one’s character. Each area of the skull represented a different quality, and any physical formations or malformations on the skull indicated whether or not certain personality traits were properly developed. In the 19th century, feeling a patient’s skull was believed by some to be the equivalent of performing a contemporary neurological scan. Most phrenologists counseled that, once they understood their intellectual and emotional weaknesses, patients could improve their phrenology readings by engaging in positive, corrective behaviors.

Though the practice itself has been thoroughly discredited, a basic idea upon which phrenology is based is scientifically sound. Different physical, emotional, and intellectual functions are controlled by different areas of the brain. Damage to a particular area can affect an individual’s ability to successfully peform the functions associated with the corresponding area. However, the shape of one’s skull provides no indication of how one’s brain functions. In addition to providing post-mortem diagnoses indicating the criminality of convicted and executed criminals, phrenologists also perpetuated classism and racism. People of color and Native Americans were believed to have skull shapes inferior to those of whites.

5. Graduated Electronic Decelerator For Students With Special Needs

The Judge Rotenburg Center in Canton, Massachusetts is the only center in the United States that permits the use of therapy using shocks to correct the behavior of students with special needs. Shocks are administered to any student who tries to harm another.

The state has been trying to ban the use of the graduated electronic decelerator (GED) since 2013. That year, a video of Andre McCollins receiving multiple treatments consecutively surfaced. However, Judge Katherine Fields sided with the school, protecting its use of GED. The fight to get such treatments banned has continued, but to date even federal agencies such as the FDA have been unable to succeed.

4. The Bobo Doll Experiments

Between 1961 and 1963, Alfred Bandura conducted experiments to determine whether aggressive behavior could be learned through observation. Bandura divided 36 boys and 36 girls between the ages of three and six into three groups of 24 children. Aggressive behavior was modeled for one group. Nonaggressive behavior was modeled for another group, and no behavior was modeled to the control group. The aggressive behavior demonstrated was hitting a toy called a Bobo doll with a hammer, or throwing it into the air yelling, “Pow! Boom!” After the demonstration, all of the children were led into a room filled with desirable toys.

After being permitted to play with the toys for 10 minutes, they were told the toys were reserved for other children. After deliberately provoking the children, Bandura led them into another room. One of the toys included in that room was the Bobo doll. He wanted to observe whether any of the children, whom he had deliberately upset by previously forbidding them to play with toys, would physically demonstrate their frustration. The group of children for whom aggressive behavior was modeled were more likely to act aggressively towards the Bobo doll than either of the other two groups. Sometimes the children initiated behavior that hadn’t been modeled, such as punching the Bobo doll on the nose. Bandura proved their was a correlation between a child’s behavior (specifically agression), and the behavior he or she saw modeled by adults. Unfortunately, he didn’t consider the long term psychological effects that seeing aggressive behavior modeled might have on the children in his experiments.

3. Peter, The Randy Dolphin

In 1965, Margaret Howe was hired to teach English words to a dolphin named Peter. After 10 weeks, 6-year-old Peter, who was at the height of his sexual development, was focusing more intently on his teacher than he was on his lessons. Every morning, he greeted her with an erection while pressing against her legs and nibbling her. Howe decided Peter wouldn’t concentrate on his lessons unless she concentrated on his erection first. She regularly masturbated the dolphin. (Say it with us: Yuck.)

After the experiment ended, Peter was shipped to a lab in Miami. Veterinarian Andy Williamson said Peter’s relationship with Margaret Howe was psychologically damaging for the dolphin. “Margaret could rationalize [their separation],” says Williamson, “but […] here’s the love of [Peter’s] life gone.” According to Williamson, Peter died of a broken heart a few weeks after his relocation.

2. Victor, The Wild Boy

In 1800, after several attempts, a young boy was captured in the woods. He couldn’t speak, or understand spoken language. The boy was named Victor, but he was colloquially dubbed “Wild Boy.” He was released into the care of Abbé Sicard, the head of the Institute for Deaf Mutes in Paris, though he wasn’t deaf. Later, he was taken in by Jean-Marc Gasperd Itard, who publically displayed him. Victor learned some basic sign language due to Itard’s strict system of food rewards and corporeal punishment, but he never learned to speak. Itard stopped teaching him in 1806.

After Itard’s death, his wife was awarded guardianship of Victor. Though she provided him with essentials such as food, clothing, and shelter, she never interacted with him. Victor died in 1828.

1. Harry Harlow’s Monkeys

Harry Harlow conducted experiments on monkeys to determine the significance of maternal bonding in early infancy. In the 1959, Harlow placed eight baby rhesus monkeys with two types of wire “mothers.” One was made of wire, and crudely shaped to resemble a rhesus monkey. Though also made of wire and shaped like a rhesus monkey, the other was covered in terrycloth. Each mother provided milk to four babies. Harlow fed them in shifts, with the milk only placed near one mother for each feeding session. Neither mother could hold, clean, or respond to the babies in any way. In short, Harlow deprived the monkeys of the opportunity to form maternal bonds.

The monkeys who were parented by a wire mother without terrycloth were constantly anxious and aloof, and all of the monkeys sought out the softer, terrycloth mother when Harlow purposely subjected them to distressing stimuli, such as loud, moving mechanical toys. The babies clearly found the terrycloth mother preferable to the wire one, but that was only because, prior to being placed in the cage with the two mothers, all eight monkeys were socially isolated and deprived of physical contact. A third control group of four monkeys parented by actual mothers had no interest in Harlow’s substitutes. All of the monkeys in Harlow’s experiment had difficulty forming social bonds with other monkeys.

Harlow’s methods were cruel to the monkeys, but his results were psychologically demaging to humans too. Until recently, the wire mother was used as a simile to shame mothers who had children with autism. Psychologists claimed that behaviors typically associated with autism, such as lack of eye contact, physical contact, and, in some cases, verbal communication, were caused by the presence of a mother who, like a wire monkey, failed to bond with her child during infancy. In reality, autism is a sensory condition, not a psychological disorder.

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