8 Unethical Psychological Experiments that Completely Crossed the Line

8 Unethical Psychological Experiments that Completely Crossed the Line

When it comes to ethics in psychological experiments, the American Psychological Association has a Code of Conduct in place. Psychological experiments can be key to understanding what makes people tick, yet some individuals have gone beyond the line in rather unusual and sometimes morally dubious ways. Although these researchers’ findings may have helped to better understand human behavior, the methods that they have used in order to test their theories have at times overstepped ethical boundaries. And to such an extent that they might even seem downright sadistic. Those involved in such studies have suffered lasting emotional damage; with some cases leading to life-long depression. Here are 8 unethical psychological experiments in history that completely crossed the line.

1. The Monster Study of 1939.

The monster study, experiments, science, psychology
Image via cbsnews.com

The Monster Study of 1939 was a mind boggling experiment carried out on 22 orphans at Iowa University by Dr. Wendell Johnson and Dr. Mary Tudor. The aim of the experiment was to have an understanding of their behavioral development and mainly focused on stuttering. Johnson selected his graduate student Mary Tudor in 1939 and wanted her to administer the experiment while he supervised it.

After the children were divided into control and experimental groups, half of them received positive speech therapy, meaning that they were instilled confidence about their speech while others were given a really negative attitude and were belittled for every single mistake they made. The negative group were even spanked in some cases and were told many times that they were stutters. This therapy lasted for about 5 months. It was observed that the children in the negative therapy group and were exposed to negative speech therapy started to have some speech impediments. Even worse, after a while, the children developed everlasting damage in their behavior.

After the study was discovered by Johnson’s colleagues, the whereabouts of it was kept a secret. 6 of the children were paid $925,000 in 2007 as compensation for the damage the 5-month-long study did.

2. The Aversion Project, 1970’s and 1980’s.

The Aversion Project
Image: Crime Scene Database

The Aversion Project was a medical torture program in South Africa led by Dr. Aubrey Levin during apartheid. The project identified gay soldiers as conscripts who used drugs in the South African Defence Forces (SADF). Victims were forced to submit to “curing” their homosexuality because the SADF considered homosexuality to be “subversive” and those who were homosexual were subject to punishment. Thousands of homosexual men were subjected to electric shock therapy, hormone treatment and chemical castration through the 1970’s and 80’s.

The attempts to “cure” homosexuals began after the creation of the infamous ward 22 at the Voortrekkerhoogte military hospital near Pretoria in 1969. The ward, which ostensibly catered for servicemen with psychological problems, was under the command of an army colonel and psychologist, Aubrey Levin. On arrival at ward 22, “patients” were stripped of their clothes and shoes and given brown pyjamas. The army said that would help to prevent escapes. Every new patient was put on Valium.

Dr. Aubrey Levin (the head of the study) is now Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry (Forensic Division) at the University of Calgary’s Medical School.

3. Stanford Prison Experiment, 1971.

Stanford Prison Experiment, 1971
Image via nypost

This study was not necessarily unethical, but the results were disastrous. Even today, the SPE remains one of the most famous studies in social psychology ever conducted, and it’s the subject of a new film, “The Stanford Prison Experiment”. Famed psychologist Philip Zimbardo led this experiment to examine that behavior of individuals when placed into roles of either prisoner or guard and the norms these individuals were expected to display. Prisoners were put into a situation purposely meant to cause disorientation, degradation, and depersonalization. The guards were allowed to do whatever they wanted with the prisoners and they had no specific directions or training.

As the experiment carried on, the guards started becoming paranoid about the prisoners, believing they were out to get them. Prisoners began to experience emotional disturbances, depression, and learned helplessness. Five days into the experiment, Dr. Zimbardo decided to discontinue it because he himself could not believe how real the prison appeared to the prisoners and the guards. Though the experiment lasted only for a short time, the results were damaging since most of the people who acted as guards started exhibiting sadistic tendencies.

4. Milgram Experiment, 1961.

Milgram Experiment
Image via crowdact

Yale University social psychology professor Stanley Milgram embarked on his now infamous series of experiments in 1961. Prompted by the trial of high-ranking Nazi and Holocaust-coordinator Adolf Eichmann, Milgram wished to assess whether people really would carry out acts that clashed with their conscience if so directed by an authority figure. For each test, Milgram lined up three people, who were split into the roles of “experimenter” (or authority figure), “teacher” and “learner”.

After that, the teacher – who was separated from the learner and told to comply with the experimenter – would attempt to tutor the learner in sets of word pairs. The penalty for wrong answers by the learner was shocking in more ways than one, as they pretended to receive painful and increasingly strong jolts of electricity that the teacher thought they were delivering. Even though no real shocks were inflicted, the ethics of the experiment came under close scrutiny owing to the severe psychological stress placed on its volunteer subjects.

5. Monkey Drug Trials, 1969.

Monkey Drug Trials, 1969

While their findings may have shed light on the psychological aspect of drug addiction, three researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School arguably completely overstepped the mark in 1969 by getting macaque monkeys hooked on illegal substances. G.A. Deneau, T. Yanagita and M.H. Seevers injected the unwitting primates with drugs, including cocaine, amphetamines, morphine and alcohol. Why? In order to see if the animals would then go on to freely administer doses of the psychoactive and, in some cases, potentially deadly substances themselves.


Many of the monkeys did, which the researchers claimed established a link between drug abuse and psychological dependence. Still, given the fact that the conclusions cannot necessarily be applied to humans, the experiment may have had questionable scientific value. Moreover, even if a link was determined, the method was quite possibly unethical and undoubtedly cruel – especially since some of the monkeys became a danger to themselves and died.

6. Tony LaMadrid, 1991.

Schizophrenia, split personality, humans
Image via Marco Castellani/Flickr

Conducted by Keith Nuechterlein and other psychologists at UCLA in 1991, the experiment was to take schizophrenic patients off their medications to see how they react and see what behaviors warn of a breakdown. Tony LaMadrid, a 23-year-old man who was suffering from depression and schizophrenia had been both a patient at the UCLA Medical Center and an active participant in a sweeping psychiatric study approved by the university. In the spring of 1991, even though he was no longer directly involved in experiments, Lamadrid continued to be monitored by the research staff.

The study “Development Process in Schizophrenic Disorders” was conducted by psychologist Keith H. Nuechterlein. This experiment led to Tony LaMadrid committing suicide and 23 out of the 50 patients suffering severe relapses.

7. Harlow’s Monkey Experiments, 1950’s.

Harlow’s Monkey Experiments
Image via YouTube

In the 1950’s, Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin tested infant dependency using rhesus monkeys in his experiments rather than human babies. The monkey was removed from its actual mother which was replaced with two “mothers,” one made of cloth and one made of wire. The cloth “mother” served no purpose other than its comforting feel whereas the wire “mother” fed the monkey through a bottle. The monkey spent the majority of his day next to the cloth “mother” and only around one hour a day next to the wire “mother,” despite the association between the wire model and food.

Harlow also used intimidation to prove that the monkey found the cloth “mother” to be superior. He would scare the infants and watch as the monkey ran towards the cloth model. Harlow also conducted experiments which isolated monkeys from other monkeys in order to show that those who did not learn to be part of the group at a young age were unable to assimilate and mate when they got older. Harlow’s experiments ceased in 1985 due to APA rules against the mistreatment of animals as well as humans.

8. Learned Helplessness, 1965.

Learned helpnessness
Image via psu.edu

The ethics of Martin Seligman’s experiments on learned helplessness would also be called into question today due to his mistreatment of animals. In 1965, Martin Seligman and his colleagues were doing research on classical conditioning, or the process by which an animal or human associates one thing with another. In the case of Seligman’s experiment, he would ring a bell and then give a light shock to a dog. After a number of times, the dog reacted to the shock even before it happened: as soon as the dog heard the bell, he reacted as though he’d already been shocked.

But, then something unexpected happened. Seligman put each dog into a large crate that was divided down the middle with a low fence. The dog could see and jump over the fence if necessary. The floor on one side of the fence was electrified, but not on the other side of the fence. Seligman put the dog on the electrified side and administered a light shock. He expected the dog to jump to the non-shocking side of the fence. Instead, the dogs lay down. It was as though they’d learned from the first part of the experiment that there was nothing they could do to avoid the shocks, so they gave up in the second part of the experiment; demonstrating learned helplessness.

Also read: David Reimer, The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl In A Gender Experiment!

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