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11 Psychology Experiments That Went Horribly Wrong

Science has given us amazing breakthroughs, but some researchers have been responsible for horrifying studies—here are some of the worst

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UCLA schizophrenia medication experiment

In 1983, researchers at UCLA began studying 50 patients suffering from schizophrenia. The aim: To figure out if symptoms of the disorder, such as lack of concentration, delusions, and hallucinations, would improve by taking patients off their medications. As the New York Times reports, one de-medicated patient committed suicide and another threatened to kill his parents. Critics pointed to a serious breach of ethics when the researchers failed to warn subjects how much worse their symptoms might get. It’s crucial for investigators to consider “the way we treat our participants,” says historian of psychology Cathy Faye, PhD.

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Minnesota starvation experiment

Researchers at the University of Minnesota experimented on conscientious objectors during World War II, to understand the effects of food deprivation. The Journal of Nutrition explains that the men were semi-starved for three months, then “re-fed” for several more. Although the men claimed the effects—a 25 percent loss of body weight plus irritability and depression—were worth it for their contributions to science, some continued to binge-eat and experience crippling depression after the study concluded; one subject chopped off three of his fingers.

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Aversion therapy

British Army captain “Billy” Clegg-Hill was arrested for homosexuality in 1962—when it was still considered a mental illness—and a crime in the United Kingdom—and subjected to electroshock as a means to “cure” him; this aversion therapy was supposed to make him feel repulsed by his attraction to men. He died three days into the treatment, in part due to lack of blood flow to the brain. Those who actually survived aversion therapy in its heyday reported feeling “poisoned” and incapable of intimacy. These are the rarest conditions doctors have ever diagnosed.

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The Monster Study

Is stuttering a brain disorder or a learned response? This question led University of Iowa researcher Mary Tudor to conduct speech experiments on 22 orphan children in 1938. Non-stutterers were told they actually did stutter; the children devolved into poor students and fearful speakers—one even ran away from the orphanage, according to the New York Times. The study proved an utter failure—its outcomes were contrary to what researchers expected to find—and those who heard about it later nicknamed it the Monster Study. “In the search for scientific objectivity, we often lose sight of…participants as real people,” says Dr. Faye.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment

In a now-famous contentious 1971 experiment on imprisonment, 35 college students were enlisted to play guards and 35 others acted as prisoners in a basement at Stanford University. Within 24 hours, “guards” had violently quelled a “prisoner” uprising and turned to blatantly authoritarian tactics; 12 hours after that, prisoners began to exhibit emotional disturbances and rage. The study came to an abrupt end after five days when, the lead researcher says, it became clear “we had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation.”

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The Unabomber and Harvard’s humiliation studies

Would we have had a Unabomber without the infamous Harvard University humiliation studies? In 2000, an article in the Atlantic proposed that psychological research conducted beginning in 1959 on subjects, including Theodore John Kaczinsky, may have led, at least indirectly, to the three deaths and 23 injuries from the Unabomber’s attacks from the late 1970s through the ’90s. “Personally abusive” assaults on study participants’ psyches were designed to break down their egos and may have contributed to what Kaczinsky’s defense lawyers maintained was his “paranoid mind.” These experiments were so creepy that they sound like science fiction.

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Squirrel Monkey
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Harlow’s Pit of Despair

It seems impossible now, but in the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow placed baby monkeys in isolation for a year just to prove that children need their mothers’ love. The infant rhesus monkeys suffered various tortures in isolated confinement, and they went on to develop severe psychosis and depression. Though Harlow’s work was heralded at the time, it was eventually shut down for ethics violations.

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Milgram obedience experiment

The atrocities of World War II led to many psychological studies, including Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiment: He was trying to understand the “just following orders” excuse of Nazi soldiers who committed atrocities. In the study, “teachers” zapped “learners” who were sitting in electrified chairs when they made mistakes. Not surprisingly, the learners experienced high stress—sweating, trembling, and stuttering; three suffered uncontrollable seizures. These disturbing history facts were never taught in schools.

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Tearoom trade

These days, no researcher can run a study without “Informed consent”—they must alert volunteers to any potential risks in a study. But the idea is relatively new: In Laud Humphrey’s 1970 study on anonymous hookups in so-called “tearooms,” Humphrey adopted a false identity to spy on some 100 men. He collected sexual data—as well as identities, addresses, and other personal information—on his unwitting subjects at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in some states. “The sensitive data that Humphreys covertly gathered wielded the potential to destroy the lives and families of the subjects,” explains an article in UC Santa Barbara’s sociology newsletter.

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Electroshock therapy on ‘schizophrenic’ children

In the 1940s and 50s, Loretta Bender was heralded as a revolutionary child psychiatrist. Her reputation came through administering electroshock therapy and causing severe seizures in more than 500 supposedly schizophrenic children—some of them under the age of 3. A number of her subjects detailed the horrors they experienced as a result: Deteriorating mental state, memory loss, and self-harm; one 9-year-old subject attempted suicide twice.

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CIA mind control experiments

The CIA has been implicated in a number of illegal mind-control experiments that went horribly wrong for the subjects. During the Cold War, the spy agency experimented with torture in the form of Chinese brainwashing tactics. CIA investigators also gave subjects LSD, heroin, and mescaline without knowledge, let alone consent. The agency also used electric shock on people: All of the experiments were done in the name of improved interrogation tactics and increased resistance to torture. The result for the volunteers were hallucinations, paranoia, comas, insanity, and death. Check out these 12 conspiracy theories that turned out to be true.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.