[Draft] The Shocking Backstories Behind Psychological Experiments

          Ever since Eratosthenes’ discovery of the exact measurements of Earth’s circumference and diameter of the Earth, scientists have been on the hunt to discover new things through experimentation. Experimentation is a common research method that is used to support, refute or validate a hypothesis that is made by the individual conducting the experiment. As a result of experimentation, theories and discoveries can be created or knowledge in a certain field can be enhanced or updated. In the field of psychology, many essential and important discoveries on topics like personality and emotion, thinking and cognition and parenting and children, were made because of experiments done. Although helpful advances were developed, people are unaware of the dark history behind how such discoveries came about. Experiments, such as the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment, used unethical procedures to get answers to questions and hypotheses that were important to understand. The scientists in these two projects have put the test subjects through unnecessary, extreme and corrupt tests that could have been altered to make them ethical studies. When conducting science research, scientists believe that there are no boundaries on how far one can torture their test subjects for the advancement of science, however, many experiments have gone too far exceeding ethic codes and the social dogma.

          More or less, psychology is the scientific study of behaviors and the mind. Ever since the 19th century, there has been four primary purposes of psychology. They are to describe, explain, predict, and change behavior (Cherry). Through psychological experimentation, many theories have come about to help explain different aspects of human behavior. Some experiments focused on small aspects (mini-theories) while others focused on theories that were designed to explain all of human psychology (grand theories). Another purpose for these experiments is to make predictions about how humans think and act. When scientists successfully predict behavior, it shows that they understand the underlying causes of our actions. Predictions also allow scientists to make guesses without understanding the mechanisms underlying phenomena. Psychologists also work on changing behaviors. They strive on influencing or controlling behaviors to make lasting changes in people’s lives. Overall, the goals for experiments done in the psychology field are deemed to only bring about positive findings and discoveries. But, what is hidden are the processes that psychologists use to get their final theories. Many psychologists used uneth to get their wanted answers. And many scientists that knew it was controversial and unethical simply said that they did it because it was possible to be done (Walker). They had the mentality that they could do it just because they can (Walker). Two experiments that were famous for their discoveries but utilized unethical procedures were the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

          During the Nuremburg Trials, many Nazis claimed that it was not their fault for the actions that took place. It was just them supposedly following orders. So could we call the Nazis accomplices or no? This was a question that psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to answer. In order to get the answer, Milgram conducted a famous experiment known as the Milgram Experiment. In the experiment, volunteers were paired with another person who was a confederate of Milgram’s. The pairs were then asked to draw lots to determine their roles as either a “teacher” or a “learner” (Tayag). But, Stanley purposely had the volunteer be the teacher in every case. The learner is then placed in a separate room and electrodes are attached to them. The teacher, “would join an “experimenter” – an actor dressed in a lab coat- in a separate room and presented with an electric shock generator” (Tayag). After the setup was completed, the experimenter told the teacher to teach the learner a list of word pairs. The learner was told to repeat the words, but every time there was a mistake the teacher was told to administer an electric shock, each more intense than the last. The shocks were fake, but the learner would respond by screaming in pain every time. Frightening results showed that 65% of the shockers administered the shock at the highest level (fig. 1). As a result, the experiment proved that ordinary people will be obedient to authority, even to the point of killing another human being.            Despite making this big discovery, the whole experiment was unethical in many different ways. The participants involved were under the impression that they were shocking a real person. They were unaware that the learner was Milgram’s confederate. As a result, “Some teachers even believed they had badly hurt, or even killed the learner causing a lot of distress” (qtd. in Nairne 435). There were many signs of tension including sweating, trembling, stuttering, laughing nervously, biting lips and digging fingernails into palms of hands. There were even three participants who had uncontrollable seizures and many were begging for permission to stop the experiment. Milgram also lied about the purpose saying it was studying the effects of punishment on learning. And although all of the participants were debriefed after the experiment, this was not enough as it did not try to prevent any psychological damage that could have affected the participants. Milgram’s experiment brought to light about maybe why the Nazis were following Hitler’s orders, but were the unethical implications behind the experiment okay to overlook? The experiment used an unnecessary way to try to find the reasoning behind the Nazis mindset and could have been done differently if Milgram did not use immoral experimentation by lying and potentially causing psychological damage.

          Another psychology experiment that was heavily criticized for being overlooked because of its discovery was the Stanford Prison experiment. The experiment was funded by the US Office of Naval Research as they hoped that, “it would identify the causes of conflict between prison guards and prisoners (Tayag). In the studies, that took place at Stanford University in 1971, participants were randomly given roles as either a “prisoner” or a “prison guard.” They had to play the roles during the whole time the experiment was in session. Lead researcher Philip Zimbardo, asked them to play their roles for two weeks. There were also a set of rules that the guards had to abide by like not physically harming the prisoners. But the experiment, which was famous for its discovery on prison guard brutality, had to be stopped in a span of five days because it got out of hand. What is unknown to general public is that this experiment also had a dark backstory and was unethical all around. Participants in the experiment were taking their roles way too seriously. Things started getting out of hand a few days in and things were happening like the guards calling prisoners by number rather than name, and forcing the prisoners to take off their clothes or sleep on the concrete. Throughout the whole experiment, “The prisoners were taunted with insults and petty orders, they were given pointless and boring tasks to accomplish, and they were generally dehumanized” (McLeod). There was a lack of protection from psychological harm and many prisoners were released because of uncontrollable bursts of crying, anger and screaming. One account recorded was from prisoner #8612. Prisoner #8612 began to suffer from, “ from acute emotional disturbance, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying, and rage” (McLeod). This lack of protection from psychological harm makes this experiment unethical. There was also a lack of fully informed consent by the participants. Because the results were unpredictable, there was really no consent from the participants in the study for anything that Zimbardo did. Especially when Zimbardo had the prisoners arrested at home as a “surprise” (McLeod). The study was immoral and is rarely looked into because scientists are more interested in the discovery rather than how it came about.

          While psychologists were successful in discovering new ideas and concepts, the way they got these discoveries were, for many, unethical or immoral. A lot of people are uninformed by how these experiments, like the Milgram and Stanford experiments, were unethical. Individuals, especially who are interested in psychology, should be able to educate themselves about not only discoveries, but how to conduct an ethical experiment. Scientists in general should not be overlooking ethnic codes just to advance science. But individuals, especially in the science field, are not informed about the horrors behind some of the most famous experiments and will most likely attempt to create a discovery just as big by any means necessary.

Works Cited

Cherry, Kendra. “The Goals of Psychology Are Used to Study Behavior.” Verywell Mind, Dotdash, www.verywellmind.com/what-are-the-four-major-goals-of-psychology-2795603.

“File:Graph of Milgram-Experiment.svg.” Category:Heidentor (Carnuntum) – Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Graph_of_Milgram-Experiment.svg.

McLeod, Saul. “Saul McLeod.” Simply Psychology, Simply Psychology, 1 Jan. 1970, www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html.

Officewala, Sabiha. “Ethical Issues in Milgram’s Experiment.” Prezi.com, 12 Aug. 2015, prezi.com/pjlpkyq_-dw7/ethical-issues-in-milgrams-experiment/.

Tayag, Yasmin. “Six Immoral Studies That Led To Breakthroughs.” Inverse, Inverse, 22 Oct. 2018, www.inverse.com/article/4522-6-immoral-studies-that-led-to-breakthroughs.

Walker, Louise. “Pushing Scientific Boundaries: How Far Is Too Far?” The Brain Bank North West, 25 Feb. 2013, thebrainbank.scienceblog.com/2013/02/25/pushing-scientific-boundaries-how-far-is-too-far/.

Fig. 1 Percent of participants who gave shock levels

About the author: Cielo Jimenez

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