Big Boo Boos / Learning Experiences in Psychological Research

Psychologists are really, really good at learning from mistakes. Despite being a relatively ‘new’ science, strict ethical policies and procedures are placed around psychological research today. As was most probably required, following some of these more controversial and questionable techniques developed to study the causes and consequences of human behavior.

Here’s 5 of what I think are some of the most memorable ‘learning experiences’ in psychological research history thus far. The thing about these experiences is that the results are really quite devastating. Could the researchers foresee this was going to be the case? Maybe. Maybe not. Let this not deter you from participating in every psychological survey, test, experiment that comes your way. We are much better at doing risk assessments these days. And engaging in psychological research benefits EVERYBODY. Nowadays.

1. Fake Monkey Mothers
In the 1950s, Dr Harry Harlow studied infant dependency and attachment using rhesus monkeys. In one set of experiments he removed the monkey from its mother, replacing it with two ‘mothers’ – one made of cloth and one made of wire. The wire mother fed the monkey through a bottle and the cloth mother served no purpose other than being soft to touch. Harlow found that the monkey spent the majority of the time with the cloth mother, despite the association between the wire model mother and food. Furthermore, when Dr Harlow scared the infant monkeys he found they were more likely to move towards the cloth mother than the wire mother.

And just in case he hadn’t terrified all monkeys enough, he also removed already bonded infant rhesus monkeys and placed them in stainless steel vertical chamber devices in order to severe these attachment bonds. Sometimes these monkeys were kept in these chambers for up to a year. As expected these monkeys had trouble assimilating and mating with other monkeys when they grew older. They also often came out of the chamber with psychotic symptoms and did not recover from such symptoms. Whilst Harlow concluded that this showed that a good attachment and happy, normal childhood was no defense against mental illness, others argued that these results were purely common sense and a response to prolonged trauma.

Harlow’s experiments ceased in 1985 when the American Psychiatric Association rules against the mistreatment of animals became more explicit, however many believe that the animal liberation movement in the US was born as a result of these experiments.

2. The Monster Study
In 1939, Johnson and his team at the University of Iowa attempted to discover the cause of stuttering by turning orphaned children into stutterers. 22 young children, 12 of whom were non-stutters made up the experimental group. Half of the group experienced positive speech therapy where the fluency of their speech was praised. The other half of the group was given negative speech therapy where they were told they were stutterers and they were belittled for every speech imperfection. No one in either group developed a stutter at the end of the experiment but many of the normal speaking children who received negative therapy in the experiment suffered negative psychological effects, such as low self esteem and self confidence, and some retained speech problems during the course of their life.

Dubbed “The Monster Study” by some of Johnson’s peers who were horrified that he would experiment on orphan children to prove a theory, the experiment was kept hidden for fear Johnson’s reputation would be tarnished. The University of Iowa publicly apologized for the Monster Study in 2001.

3. Scared 'Little Albert'
Continuing with the theme of the horrendous mistreatment of orphans, psychologist and ‘Father’ of behaviourism tested the idea of whether fear was an innate or a conditioned response. Little Albert was the nickname given to the nine month old that Watson selected from the hospital. Watson then exposed Albert to all sorts of things – a white rabbit, a white rat, a monkey, masks, cotton wool, burning newspaper. Albert appeared to particularly enjoy playing with the rat and did not fear this animal at all. Watson would then make a loud sound behind Albert’s back by stricking a suspended steel bar with a hammer whenever the baby touched the rat. On these occasions, Albert became distressed and showed fear as he heard the noise. This was done repeatedly so that Albert would become distress as soon as the rat appeared. Albert had associated the white rat with the loud noise and had become conditioned to fear the rat.

Poor Albert then started to generalise his fear response to anything fluffy or white (or both) – imagine the cotton wool response! And to make matters all the worse, Little Albert was not put through the part of the experiment where he was desensitised to his fear. He left the hospital before Watson could do so. Little Albert died aged 6 years.

4. The Stanford Prison Experiment
In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University conducted an experiment examining group behavior and the importance of roles. He picked a group of 24 male university students who had signed up to participate in a ‘psychological study of prison life’, paying $15 per day. Half of the students were randomly assigned to be prisoners and the other half to be prison guards. The experiment played out in the basement of the Stanford psyc department which had been made into a makeshift prison.
The prisoners were given a fairly standard introduction to prison life, but the guards were given vague instructions that they needed to stay in control but should never be violent with the prisoners. The first day went okay. On the second day the prisoners rebelled by barricading themselves in their cells and ignoring the guards. The guards were quite shocked and began separating the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ prisoners and gave out punishments including push ups, solitary confinement and public humiliation.

The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks, however as Zimbardo explains: “In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” After five days it ceased, due to the devastating consequences and abuse that “physically and psychologically healthy individuals” can cause once assimilated into socially defined roles.

5. The ‘Shocking’ Milgrim Study
In 1961 social psychologist, Stanley Milgrim at Yale University set out to test obedience and authority. In this experiment the participants became the ‘teachers’, whilst the ‘learner’ was an actor, however the teachers believed the learner was also a participant. Both teachers and the actor were informed the study was about memory and learning.
The teacher and learner were separated into different rooms and could not see but hear each other. The teacher would ask the learner a question and if the learner was incorrect, the teacher was to administer an electric shock with voltage that increased with every wrong answer. If correct, there would be no shock and the teacher could move on to the next question.

In reality, no shocks were being administered. A tape recorder with pre-recorded screams was used to play each time the teacher administered a shock. As the shocks increased in voltage, the actor/learner would bang on the wall and ask the teacher to stop. Eventually all screams and banging would cease and silence would ensue. At this point many participants exhibited extreme distress and would ask to stop the experiment. They would be encouraged to continue and told they would not be responsible for any results.

If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was told by the experimenter – “Please continue. The experiment requires that you continue. It is absolutely essential that you continue. You have no other choice, you must go on.” If after all four orders the teacher still wished to stop the experiment, it was ended. Only 14 out of 40 teachers halted the experiment before administering a 450 volt shock, and no teacher firmly refused to stop the shocks before 300 volts.

Had the shocks existed and been at the voltage they were labelled, the majority of the participants would have actually killed the 'learner' in the next room. Imagine the harm that would have caused?

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