7 Famous Psychology Experiments That Would Be Unethical Today

Unethical Famous Psychology Experiments

Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. It was considered a branch of philosophy until the 1870s, when it became a scientific discipline in Germany and the United States. Many famous psychology experiments have helped change the way we think about the human mind and behavior. However, psychologists in the past often went too far with their experiments, because ethical standards were practically non-existent back then. Below are 7 famous psychological experiments that today would either be considered unethical, or at the very least, a PR disaster.

1. The Monster Study

The Monster Study was conducted in 1939 with 22 orphans, 10 of whom had a stutter. Dr. Wendell Johnson, the speech pathologist who conducted the study, wanted to determine the underlying cause of stuttering. The children were equally separated into two groups. Half of the group was with a speech therapist who praised their progress, and the other half was with a speech therapist who chastised the children for making even the slightest mistake. Many of the children who had received negative treatment, even those who had not previously had a stuttering problem, ended up with emotional damage and lasting issues with their speech.

2. Homosexual Aversion Therapy

In 1966, Martin E.P. Seligman performed a series of experiments involving homosexual aversion therapy, back when homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Aversion therapy involved pairing images of homosexuals with painful stimuli, such as electric shocks. Although the results of the experiment deemed the practice ineffective, aversion therapy of homosexuals continued—often with forced subjects. It was not until 1994 that the American Psychological Association finally declared aversion therapy for homosexuals to be both dangerous and unsuccessful.

3. The Little Albert Experiment

In 1920 at Johns Hopkins University, a study of classical conditioning was conducted on a nine-month old boy named Albert. The boy loved animals at the beginning of the experiment, especially a white rat. During the experiment, the presence of the rat was paired with the sound of a hammer hitting metal. This caused Albert to develop a fear of the rat and other furry, white animals. Albert was never desensitized from his phobias, and it is possible that they continued past the experiment.

4. Pit of Despair

The Pit of Despair was an empty chamber with no stimulus. Monkeys and other non-human subjects were placed in the chamber to examine the effects of total isolation. Most of the subjects went insane and some of the monkeys even refused food to try and starve themselves to death.

5. Stanford Prison Experiment

Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo had a group of male college students participate in a two-week-long experiment during which they pretended they were prisoners and guards in a prison. Zimbardo assigned the students their roles without their knowledge, and the results were disturbing. The students assimilated into their roles and the prison became very real to them, with some of the students serving as sadistic guards and others as distraught prisoners. Zimbardo was so concerned that he ended the experiment early.

6. Elephant on LSD

In 1962, the director of Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City injected an elephant with 3,000 times the typical human dose of LSD. The elephant immediately collapsed, went into convulsions, and then died, creating a PR disaster for the zoo.

7. Milgram Study

The Milgram Study was a series of unethical psychology experiments regarding obedience to authority figures. Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to know what brought people to participate in the cruel acts of the Holocaust. Milgram asked normal people to ask questions to a man connected to an electric-shock generator and then shock him when his answers were incorrect. The man was an actor and the shocks were not real. People obeyed Milgram’s commands to shock the man, even though he was screaming in agony. This experiment has come into question, because the participants were placed under extreme stress and could have experienced psychological harm.

In order to have a clear understanding of the ethics and history of psychology, it is important to learn about the famous psychological experiments of the past. Fortunately, we have come a long way since these questionable studies were performed, and today, standards for psychological experimentation are a lot more strict.