6 Groundbreaking Psychology Experiments that Scarred Participants for Life

Psychologists are wonderful people. They’ve given us psychoanalysis, Celebrity Rehab, and Ritalin. Psychologists are also generally ethical, kind people out to do good and improve our understanding of human behavior.

However, sometimes people do some ethically dubious things in the name of science. For example…

6. Little Albert

Remember Ivan Pavlov, the guy who’s famous for making dogs droll in response to a bell?

"I’m a genius! Where’s my Nobel Prize?!"

Pavlov is famous for demonstrating classical conditioning. Classical conditioning works like this: Humans are pretty dumb, so we try to make everything easier on ourselves. We put things together that don’t really go together. For example, if your local bartender slaps you in the face every time you order a vodka-cranberry, you’ll start cowering in terror every time you smell vodka or cranberries.

It’s not really the vodka or the cranberries; she just hates you

Conditioning is responsible for those heart-flutters you feel every time you smell your ex-girlfriend’s perfume. It’s also why a junkie can’t visit his former crack-house without going into a self-destructive, needle-poking rampage.

The experiment:

In 1920, John Watson and Rosalie Rayner wanted to top Pavlov’s work and see if classical conditioning could work on a human baby. They chose a normal, eight-month-old baby who they dubbed “Little Albert.”

They started by showing Little Albert a white rat, then slamming a hammer onto a metal rod. Little Albert wasn’t initially afraid of the rat, but the crazy hammering sound was terrifying, so he soon learned to associate the rat with fear and misery.

After Little Albert was satisfactorily terrified by the white rat, Watson and Rayner used the same process to make him afraid of other white/fluffy things: a rabbit, cotton, Santa Claus, and a white seal fur coat (because, you know, this was the 1920’s).

I wasn’t there, but I assume their thinking went something like this: “Wow, those drooling dogs were adorable! How much more exciting would this experiment be if we used an infant instead of a dog? But instead of letting the baby smell delicious steaks all day, we’ll make sure every time he sees something white and fluffy, it will scare the bejeezus out of him! What could possibly go wrong?”

Where it went wrong:

Unfortunately, Watson and Rayner chose the color white. There are a lot of white things in the world, and we can only assume that all of them terrified eight-month-old Little Albert after his encounter with science.

Even worse, Little Albert left the lab before the experimenter was able to get rid of his fear of everything white (probably because Little Albert refused to see the mean, evil scientists at this point). So, essentially, Watson and Rayner gave an infant an enduring terror of all things fluffy and white and then never fixed the problem.

Not pictured: Little Albert shitting his pants at his first job interview

5. Oklahoma Sonic Boom Tests

The experiment:

Also known as “Operation Bongo” (yes, really), the Oklahoma Sonic Boom Tests were carried out in Oklahoma City across six months in 1964 by the Federal Aviation Administration to parse out the sociological and economic factors in sonic boom flights over rural areas. The FAA wanted to figure out if the US could use supersonic transcontinental air travel.

Seems important…

Where it went wrong:

Except that a sonic boom is sound. A lot of it. Just for some perspective, a sonic boom can reach 200 decibels at ground level. That’s one million times the sound of a cricket. Or 3.5 thousand times the sound of the average fart.

Although residents of Oklahoma city were initially receptive to the experiment, they got tired of the sonic booms pretty quickly. The force of the booms broke 147 windows and led to a class action law suit by the residents of Oklahoma city against the federal government. The FAA concluded that sonic booms were “tolerated” and hundreds of thousands of people in Oklahoma concluded that the federal government is composed entirely of assholes.

"Turns out, poor people will tolerate a shit-load of noise!"

4. Facial Expressions Experiment

The experiment:

In 1924, Carney Landis, a psychologist from the University of Minnesota wanted to do an experiment to figure out whether people make universal facial expressions unique to different emotions.

The study had many awesome implications for teaching autistic children about emotions and teaching men how to approach the gentler sex.

If you start apologizing for existing now, you might still get laid tonight.

Where it went wrong:

As part of the experiment, to induce a ‘disgust’ facial expression, participants were asked to behead a live rat. They had no instructions and no training to perform the procedure in an ethical manner. So, this was pretty freaking terrifying for all of them.

Although the idea was admirable, the experiment actually produced no positive results. Turns out we really are beautiful and unique snowflakes when we look at really gross stuff.


The 1960’s were a glorious time in American history. Love was free, racism was falling out of vogue, and your parents were drying weed in their ovens to go to Woodstock.

I don't know about you, but I had fun.

MK-ULTRA was the code name for a series of experiments conducted by the CIA during the 1960’s. The CIA? Well there must be nothing to worry about; they’re totally trustworthy! Right?

The experiment:

Wrong. Although the original stated goal was “mind control,” what they actually did was test LSD on unsuspecting civilians.

The CIA even included a separate project called Operation Midnight Climax (seriously) in which they used prostitutes to lure unwitting subjects and then test tons of illegal substances–including LSD–on them, all while monitoring them behind one-way glass. I know this is a regular Saturday night for some of you, but these are innocent civilians we’re talking about.

Towlie was a "scientist" in the 60's

Where it went wrong:

Senator Ted Kennedy’s comments on MK-ULTRA really sum things up well. In an apology to Americans and non-drug-users everywhere, Kennedy admitted that the CIA conducted “drug tests on unwitting citizens,” the “agents doing the monitoring were not qualified scientific observers,” and that “at least one death” occurred. At least…

And, best of all: “Other experiments were equally offensive. For example, heroin addicts were enticed into participating in LSD experiments in order to get a reward — heroin.”

What actually happened is not known, since almost all documents related to the experiment were destroyed in 1973. What we do know is that the CIA took advantage of the best decade of the 1900’s to get innocent people addicted to drugs. Awesome.

2. Harlow Monkey Experiment

Harry Harlow is famous for his experiments in pair-bonding with monkeys. Harlow taught us that monkeys prefer a surrogate mother who gives them warmth to one that gives them food.

In 1960, Harry Harlow changed the direction of his research. He took happy, well-adjusted monkeys who had bonded with their mothers and placed them in isolation chambers.

Fascinating! This guy has already proved he’s a genius! Everything seems fine!

Where it went wrong:

Humans aren’t the only creatures that can be emotionally affected by experimentation, you dirty speciesist! The monkeys were placed in isolation, which caused many of them to eventually go super bat-shit bananas, and not in a good way.

Harlow actually called the isolation cages “Wells of Despair.” Plus, numerous comments by Harlow indicate that he was a serious monkey-hater. Harlow’s creepy later experiments, explored the depths of depression in animals by ‘breaking their hearts.’

I hate things that share 98% of my DNA!

1. The Monster Study

The experiment:

The Monster Study was a stuttering experiment conducted on 22 orphan children in Iowa in 1939 (uh-oh, they used orphans; we can already tell this isn’t going anywhere good…).

Researchers wanted to figure out if parents played a part in whether or not children develop stutters.

Where it went wrong:

Did I mention that the experimenters got the children to stutter by screaming in their faces and telling them they were worthless?  And that they got the orphans to participate by telling them the experimenter might be their new mom?

"Hey, this is your new mom! J/K, you're still an orphan, but she's going to yell obscenities at you for the next six months."

Of the six ‘normal’ children in the experiment, five developed a stutter after “negative therapy.” The experimenters tried to reverse the damage, but couldn’t. Worst of all, the experimenters didn’t even tell the orphans they were part of an experiment until 60 years later.

When the study was made public in 2001, experimenters were forced to admit that many of the participants were psychologically scarred by participating in The Monster Study, and that “the negative therapy group showed a loss of self-esteem,” which probably led to years of this:

The University of Iowa made a public apology after the study came to light.

That’s all, folks! Thanks for reading!


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Filed under Ethics, Humor, Psychology

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