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10 Controversial Experiments In The History Of Psychology

Many experiments in history have given us plenty of insight into our minds. Still, sometimes research can go too far, and psychology crossed the line multiple times.

Psychology has been one of humankind’s greatest helpers in understanding the ins and outs of what makes us tick. Numerous experiments throughout history have given us plenty of insight into our minds. However, sometimes research can go too far. Many experiments can delve into more unusual territories, sometimes becoming morally questionable.

Psychology shows us how far we are willing to go in our search for knowledge. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but other times we can not help but wonder if we could have used a different method to learn something. Ethical boundaries are there for a reason, and psychology crossed them multiple times in the eternal search for knowledge. Sometimes the experiments go so far they may seem sadistic. This article will name just 10 of the most controversial experiments in the history of psychology, but believe us, there is more.

10. Milgram Experiment

Conducted by Yale professor Stanley Milgram in 1961, this series of experiments has become notorious due to its ruthlessness. Image credit: behavioralscientist.org

Conducted by Yale professor Stanley Milgram in 1961, this series of experiments has become notorious due to its ruthlessness. Milgram’s goal was to determine whether people would listen to an authority figure even if it went against their morals and conscience. The leaders in Nazi Germany inspired him.

The experiment looked like this: Milgram would pick three people, one of whom was playing the authority figure, and the other two who were assigned the roles of a teacher and a learner. The teacher would act under the directions of the authority figure and try to tutor the learner, who was actually an actor. For every wrong answer, the learner would pretend as if they were being shocked by electricity, and the teacher thought they were responsible. However, since the authority figure demanded they do so, they would continue.

9. Little Albert Experiments

John Watson is known as the “father of behaviorism” in psychology, and this is one of his most famous experiments. Image credit: miro.medium.com

John Watson is known as the “father of behaviorism” in psychology, and this is one of his most famous experiments. Little Albert was a nine months old orphan, and Watson wanted to prove that fear could be conditioned.

He introduced Albert to a white rat, and whenever Albert tried touching it, Watson would make deafening noises with a steel bar. Soon, Albert began being afraid of anything that resembled the rat, which proved Watson’s hypothesis.

8. Stanford Prison Experiment

Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo conducted this experiment in August 1971. Image credit: prisonexp.org

Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo conducted this experiment in August 1971. His goal was to test his theory that the conflicts happening in prisons are related to the personalities of the prisoners. He created a “fake” prison in the psychology building at Stanford University and made 24 volunteers act like either the guards or the prisoners in this “prison.”

Zimbardo acted as a sort of superintendent and tried influencing the guards to lower the prisoners’ spirits. Some of the guards started acting sadistic, humiliating the prisoners, and even Zimbardo got lost in his role and did not notice what was going on. Eventually, the experiment was stopped, but some of the participants suffered substantial emotional trauma.

7. The Bobo Doll Experiment

The goal of this controversial experiment was to show that violent behavior can be learned through observation. Image credit: simplypsychology.org

The goal of this controversial experiment was to show that violent behavior can be learned through observation. It was conducted in the 1960s by Albert Bandura. Children were made to watch adults behave violently towards a doll, by beating and verbally abusing it. When left alone, children would imitate that behavior and act violently. They became aggressive, which was incredibly disturbing to see since the children were so young. However, Bandura redid the experiment once more, seemingly unfazed by the consequences. 

6. Operation Midnight Climax

 George H. White was dosing civilians with LSD without their knowledge. Image credit: archives.sfweekly.com

The CIA sponsored this research in the 1950s, and its purpose was to study the effect of drugs on people. Most notably, the drug they were most interested in was LSD.

The subjects of this experiment were non-consenting adults, people that were lured by prostitutes paid by the CIA. These people were brought to various safe houses, and drugs were then slipped to them. Researchers were monitoring how they were behaving from behind a glass. This experiment went on for over a decade until it was shut down in 1965.

5. The Monster Study

Their test subjects were 22 children, and the theme of the study was stuttering.

Wendell Johnson and Mary Tudot, researchers from the University of Iowa, conducted this research in 1939. Their test subjects were 22 children, and the theme of the study was stuttering. However, as simple as it may seem, it would not be on this list if there were not any problems with this experiment.

Children were divided into two groups. Adults were constantly praising the first group for speaking correctly, while the other one was belittled for their speech imperfections. The results were awful, children from the second group developed speech issues, and some of them continued having them for the rest of their lives.

4. Project MKUltra

The United States government conducted this series of experiments from 1953 to 1973. Image credit: thesun.co.uk

The United States government conducted this series of experiments from 1953 to 1973. That is quite a long time to be conducting an unethical experiment, especially something as frightening as this. These experiments aimed to determine the best methods to manipulate the mental states of U.S. citizens.

This would lead to the development of various chemicals the government could use in different war operations. During these experiments, many U.S. citizens were subjected to mind-altering drugs, sexual abuse, hypnosis, isolation, along with other forms of torture. The Congress eventually shut Project MKUltra down.

3. The Aversion Project

It was done in South Africa during the Apartheid era, and the goal of this atrocity was to “cure” homosexuals of their homosexuality.

Aubrey Levin, an army colonel, and psychologist, was in charge of this horrific experiment. It was done in South Africa during the Apartheid era, and the goal of this atrocity was to “cure” homosexuals of their homosexuality. The method used was inhumane. They imprisoned thousands of homosexuals and subjected them to electroconvulsive therapy that was supposed to change their sexual orientation.

The subjects were shown pictures of nude men, told they should fantasize about them, and then electrocuted. And this was somehow supposed to “cure” homosexuality. Not only was this an inhumane and monstrous experiment, but it was also incredibly stupid. However, it was shut down when Apartheid ended.

2. Monkey Drug Trials

This horrible research was done in 1969 to study how drug addiction would affect animals.

This horrible research was done in 1969 to study how drug addiction would affect animals. They trained monkeys to use drugs, specifically to inject themselves with cocaine, codeine, morphine, and amphetamines.

They would then leave the animals alone with a certain amount of drugs. This had awful effects on the monkeys, who began acting aggressively, tried escaping, and even tearing their fur from their bodies. A large number of them died because they were mixing drugs.

1. The Pit Of Despair

This experiment is another one that used monkeys as test subjects. Image credit: verywellmind.com

This experiment is another one that used monkeys as test subjects. This time, however, the goal was to learn more about clinical depression. Since young monkeys are extremely connected to their mothers, Harry Harlow, the mastermind behind this project, started isolating a group of small monkeys inside single chambers.

These monkeys already bonded with their mothers, so they started showing signs of depression; they stopped playing and eating, which was to be expected. Everyone condemned this experiment since it did not prove anything we did not know before.

Who was Little Albert?

Little Albert was a nine months old orphan that was used as a test subject to prove that fear could be conditioned.

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