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The field of Psychology as a science is nascent in comparison to older brother sciences like biology, physiology and even pharmacology. These sciences have had experiments conducted over many thousands of years of human history, whereas psychology has only made it as a science at the end of the 19th century.

Previously psychology – or the study of the psyche has been part of philosophy from its earliest origins with Plato who spoke of the psyche as being the soul or that which imparts life. Yet neither Plato, Hippocrates nor even Aristotle conducted what could be described as a psychological experiment that lives up to the definitions of being an experiment.

Initial Experimentation

We would have to wait thousands of years for anyone to officially conduct what could be defined as an experiment. The first person generally ascribed with being the first psychological experimenter was Wilhelm Wundt a German psychologist who founded the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig Germany.

The first experiments he conducted were to do with mental agility and speed with complex problems. He would set two problems of differing complexity and have subjects complete them in a timed fashion. He would then subtract the difficulty of one from the other and then allot a temporal value to the difference in the tasks.

Ethically this experiment and many of the early experiment are without issues. However as psychological labs began to spring up around the world in the early 20th century psychological experimentation began branching in a myriad of differing directions.  With many competing views of what was psychologically acceptable and what was not, experimenters would conduct a panoply of psychological experimentation with wide variance in ethical consideration. Most were simply ignorant of the short or long term psychological damage that their experiments would inflict. This was common with new fields of experimentation, only discovering the unethical nature of the experiment because they had conducted it and often found to their horror the outcomes.

Other psychological experimenters conducted tests that even to the casual observer would be seen to be barbaric.

Stanford Prison Experiment

evilPossibly the most famous of the ethically questionable psychological experiments was the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Phillip Zimbardo in 1971. The aim was to discover how people reacted to captivity, both the captors and the captured. After the second day the experiment spiralled out of control with the ‘prison guards’ enforcing brutal conditions on recalcitrant ‘inmates’ such as deprivations of human dignity, isolation, psychological torture.

The experiment was slated to continue for fourteen days, however Zimbardo discontinued the experiment after only 6 days when his future wife Christina Maslach was reported to have said “’I think it is terrible what you are doing to those boys!” An argument ensued between them at the end of which Zimbardo decided to end the experiment.

What is interesting here and has had Maslach branded a hero for intervening, is that of the fifty observers of the experiment she was the only one who protested vehemently against the inhumanity witnessed therein.

Monstrous Experimentation

monster-studyIt was in Davenport, Iowa in 1939 that 22 orphan children were experimented on by Wendell Johnson and Mary Tudor. The basis of the experiment was to see the effect positive and negative reinforcement had on human functionality; in this case it was the issue of stuttering. The children were divided into four groups,  One control group that stuttered and were told their speech was as it is, one group that had been primarily marked as having speech impediments and /or stuttered, was praised and rewarded for good diction and correct pronunciation. A group of those with normal speech who were praised and finally another group, comprised of those with normal speech were routinely belittled for each and every mistake they made and informed by Tudor that they stuttered.

Johnson wanted to see if he could induce stutters in those who had none and cure those who did stutter. Interestingly none of those with normal speech developed a stutter, however many reported speech problems and profound self-esteem issues for the remainder of their lives.

It was Johnson’s peers that dubbed the experiment ‘The Monster Study’ not only due to the long term debilitating effects the experiment had on some of the children, but that they had used orphan children as they were a readily accessible resource.

The research was never published due to fears that analogies would be drawn to the Nazi experimentation on human subjects and only gained notoriety through the publication of an expose in 2001.

Original Article:

Psychologists have learned much over the intervening years as to what is ethical and what is not as scientists conducting experiments on people. Yet the ethical face of psychology is still changing as the experiments we do inform what we know about the effect those experiments have.