CLOSE
Original image
The Chronicle of Higher Education

10 Psychological Experiments That Could Never Happen Today

Original image
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Nowadays, the American Psychological Association has a Code of Conduct in place when it comes to ethics in psychological experiments. Experimenters must adhere to various rules pertaining to everything from confidentiality to consent to overall beneficence. Review boards are in place to enforce these ethics. But the standards were not always so strict, which is how some of the most famous studies in psychology came about. 

1. The Little Albert Experiment

At Johns Hopkins University in 1920, John B. Watson conducted a study of classical conditioning, a phenomenon that pairs a conditioned stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus until they produce the same result. This type of conditioning can create a response in a person or animal towards an object or sound that was previously neutral. Classical conditioning is commonly associated with Ivan Pavlov, who rang a bell every time he fed his dog until the mere sound of the bell caused his dog to salivate.

Watson tested classical conditioning on a 9-month-old baby he called Albert B. The young boy started the experiment loving animals, particularly a white rat. Watson started pairing the presence of the rat with the loud sound of a hammer hitting metal. Albert began to develop a fear of the white rat as well as most animals and furry objects. The experiment is considered particularly unethical today because Albert was never desensitized to the phobias that Watson produced in him. (The child died of an unrelated illness at age 6, so doctors were unable to determine if his phobias would have lasted into adulthood.)

2. Asch Conformity Experiments

Solomon Asch tested conformity at Swarthmore College in 1951 by putting a participant in a group of people whose task was to match line lengths. Each individual was expected to announce which of three lines was the closest in length to a reference line. But the participant was placed in a group of actors, who were all told to give the correct answer twice then switch to each saying the same incorrect answer. Asch wanted to see whether the participant would conform and start to give the wrong answer as well, knowing that he would otherwise be a single outlier.

Thirty-seven of the 50 participants agreed with the incorrect group despite physical evidence to the contrary. Asch used deception in his experiment without getting informed consent from his participants, so his study could not be replicated today.

3. The Bystander Effect

Some psychological experiments that were designed to test the bystander effect are considered unethical by today’s standards. In 1968, John Darley and Bibb Latané developed an interest in crime witnesses who did not take action. They were particularly intrigued by the murder of Kitty Genovese, a young woman whose murder was witnessed by many, but still not prevented.

The pair conducted a study at Columbia University in which they would give a participant a survey and leave him alone in a room to fill out the paper. Harmless smoke would start to seep into the room after a short amount of time. The study showed that the solo participant was much faster to report the smoke than participants who had the exact same experience, but were in a group.

The studies became progressively unethical by putting participants at risk of psychological harm. Darley and Latané played a recording of an actor pretending to have a seizure in the headphones of a person, who believed he or she was listening to an actual medical emergency that was taking place down the hall. Again, participants were much quicker to react when they thought they were the sole person who could hear the seizure.

4. The Milgram Experiment

Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram hoped to further understand how so many people came to participate in the cruel acts of the Holocaust. He theorized that people are generally inclined to obey authority figures, posing the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” In 1961, he began to conduct experiments of obedience.

Participants were under the impression that they were part of a study of memory. Each trial had a pair divided into “teacher” and “learner,” but one person was an actor, so only one was a true participant. The drawing was rigged so that the participant always took the role of “teacher.” The two were moved into separate rooms and the “teacher” was given instructions. He or she pressed a button to shock the “learner” each time an incorrect answer was provided. These shocks would increase in voltage each time. Eventually, the actor would start to complain followed by more and more desperate screaming. Milgram learned that the majority of participants followed orders to continue delivering shocks despite the clear discomfort of the “learner.”

Had the shocks existed and been at the voltage they were labeled, the majority would have actually killed the “learner” in the next room. Having this fact revealed to the participant after the study concluded would be a clear example of psychological harm.

5. Harlow’s Monkey Experiments

In the 1950s, 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. However, Department of Psychiatry Chair Ned H. Kalin, M.D. of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health has recently begun similar experiments that involve isolating infant monkeys and exposing them to frightening stimuli. He hopes to discover data on human anxiety, but is meeting with resistance from animal welfare organizations and the general public.

6. Learned Helplessness

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, Seligman and his team used dogs as subjects to test how one might perceive control. The group would place a dog on one side of a box that was divided in half by a low barrier. Then they would administer a shock, which was avoidable if the dog jumped over the barrier to the other half. Dogs quickly learned how to prevent themselves from being shocked.

Seligman’s group then harnessed a group of dogs and randomly administered shocks, which were completely unavoidable. The next day, these dogs were placed in the box with the barrier. Despite new circumstances that would have allowed them to escape the painful shocks, these dogs did not even try to jump over the barrier; they only cried and did not jump at all, demonstrating learned helplessness.

7. Robbers Cave Experiment

Muzafer Sherif conducted the Robbers Cave Experiment in the summer of 1954, testing group dynamics in the face of conflict. A group of preteen boys were brought to a summer camp, but they did not know that the counselors were actually psychological researchers. The boys were split into two groups, which were kept very separate. The groups only came into contact with each other when they were competing in sporting events or other activities.

The experimenters orchestrated increased tension between the two groups, particularly by keeping competitions close in points. Then, Sherif created problems, such as a water shortage, that would require both teams to unite and work together in order to achieve a goal. After a few of these, the groups became completely undivided and amicable.

Though the experiment seems simple and perhaps harmless, it would still be considered unethical today because Sherif used deception as the boys did not know they were participating in a psychological experiment. Sherif also did not have informed consent from participants.

8. The Monster Study

At the University of Iowa in 1939, Wendell Johnson and his team hoped to discover the cause of stuttering by attempting to turn orphans into stutterers. There were 22 young subjects, 12 of whom were non-stutterers. Half of the group experienced positive teaching whereas the other group dealt with negative reinforcement. The teachers continually told the latter group that they had stutters. No one in either group became stutterers at the end of the experiment, but those who received negative treatment did develop many of the self-esteem problems that stutterers often show. Perhaps Johnson’s interest in this phenomenon had to do with his own stutter as a child, but this study would never pass with a contemporary review board.

Johnson’s reputation as an unethical psychologist has not caused the University of Iowa to remove his name from its Speech and Hearing Clinic.

9. Blue Eyed versus Brown Eyed Students

Jane Elliott was not a psychologist, but she developed one of the most famously controversial exercises in 1968 by dividing students into a blue-eyed group and a brown-eyed group. Elliott was an elementary school teacher in Iowa, who was trying to give her students hands-on experience with discrimination the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, but this exercise still has significance to psychology today. The famous exercise even transformed Elliott’s career into one centered around diversity training.

After dividing the class into groups, Elliott would cite phony scientific research claiming that one group was superior to the other. Throughout the day, the group would be treated as such. Elliott learned that it only took a day for the “superior” group to turn crueler and the “inferior” group to become more insecure. The blue eyed and brown eyed groups then switched so that all students endured the same prejudices.

Elliott’s exercise (which she repeated in 1969 and 1970) received plenty of public backlash, which is probably why it would not be replicated in a psychological experiment or classroom today. The main ethical concerns would be with deception and consent, though some of the original participants still regard the experiment as life-changing.

10. The Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University conducted his famous prison experiment, which aimed to examine group behavior and the importance of roles. Zimbardo and his team picked a group of 24 male college students who were considered “healthy,” both physically and psychologically. The men had signed up to participate in a “psychological study of prison life,” which would pay them $15 per day. Half were randomly assigned to be prisoners and the other half were assigned to be prison guards. The experiment played out in the basement of the Stanford psychology department where Zimbardo’s team had created a makeshift prison. The experimenters went to great lengths to create a realistic experience for the prisoners, including fake arrests at the participants’ homes.

The prisoners were given a fairly standard introduction to prison life, which included being deloused and assigned an embarrassing uniform. The guards were given vague instructions that they should never be violent with the prisoners, but needed to stay in control. The first day passed without incident, but the prisoners rebelled on the second day by barricading themselves in their cells and ignoring the guards. This behavior shocked the guards and presumably led to the psychological abuse that followed. The guards started separating “good” and “bad” prisoners, and doled out punishments including push ups, solitary confinement, and public humiliation to rebellious prisoners.

Zimbardo explained, “In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” Two prisoners dropped out of the experiment; one eventually became a psychologist and a consultant for prisons. The experiment was originally supposed to last for two weeks, but it ended early when Zimbardo’s future wife, psychologist Christina Maslach, visited the experiment on the fifth day and told him, “I think it’s terrible what you’re doing to those boys.”

Despite the unethical experiment, Zimbardo is still a working psychologist today. He was even honored by the American Psychological Association with a Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology in 2012.

Original image
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
Original image
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

Michael Ochs Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually break away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write the “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

Original image
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
12 Facts About the Smithsonian's Collections
Original image
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

With 19 museums spread along the East Coast, the Smithsonian Institution has become the country’s richest repository of American history. From culture to science, zoos to space exploration, the federally-backed archive has spent nearly 200 years preserving and educating. Check out some facts on its history, how a new species of dolphin was found hiding in its archives, and how the founder eventually became part of the collection.

1. ITS FOUNDER NEVER SET FOOT IN THE STATES.

Wealthy British globe-trotter James Smithson (1765-1829) had acquired an estate worth roughly $500,000 at the time of his death and ordered that all of his assets be inherited by his nephew, Henry James Dickinson. There was one twist: The estate was to be turned over to the United States in the event Dickinson died without an heir of his own so the country could build a hub for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Henry, then 18, died just six years later, and so President James Polk signed the act approving the Smithsonian Institution into law in 1846. Curiously, Smithson had never even visited the U.S. Why leave such a legacy to a foreign nation? Smithson never commented on his decision, leaving people to guess that it was either because he was impressed by democracy or because he wanted to enrich a country that, at the time, had only a few educational hubs.

2. NO ONE WAS REALLY SURE WHAT SMITHSON WANTED.

A portrait of James Smithson

“Increase and diffusion of knowledge” can be interpreted pretty broadly, and it took the United States a long time—roughly 10 years—before anyone could agree on what to do with Smithson’s gift. Educators, politicians, and civilians all had a unique notion of how to spend his fortune, including opening a university, a library, or an observatory. Ultimately, the Smithsonian Institution was a compromise, involving many of these ideas. By 1855, construction on the main building was complete at the National Mall in Washington; it was designated as a National Museum in 1858 [PDF].

3. THEY HAD TO HIDE THEIR COLLECTION FROM AXIS FORCES.

At the height of U.S. involvement in World War II, museum curators knew that Axis forces would have designs on destroying the vibrant culture housed at the museum’s main location at the National Mall. To protect these irreplaceable items, the Smithsonian arranged to have them shipped to an undisclosed location—now known to be near Luray, Virginia—and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse. They didn’t return until 1944.

4. SMOKEY BEAR LIVED AT THEIR ZOO.

Smokey Bear takes a bath at the National Zoo

Yes, that Smokey Bear. (And there’s no “the” in his name.) In 1950, a bear cub that survived a raging forest fire in Capitan, New Mexico, was adopted by the U.S. Forest Service and named Smokey after the popular ad campaign mascot of the era. As a living symbol of the effort, he spent his remaining 26 years at the National Zoo, a constant recipient of visitor attention and hundreds of jars of honey.

5. THEY DISPLAY JUST ONE PERCENT OF THEIR COLLECTION.

In order to execute Smithson’s mission statement, the Smithsonian has had to morph into the greatest display of hoarding the world has ever seen. All told, the Institution’s various artifacts, specimens, and other arcana is believed to number in the neighborhood of 137 million, with an official museum estimate of 154 million. Just 1 percent of that is available for viewing at any given time.

6. ONE CATEGORY IS USUALLY OFF-LIMITS FOR VIEWING.

17th century human remains found in Jamestown, Virginia

Evolving public attitudes over the decades have prompted the Smithsonian to be very wary of displaying human remains. While they’ve collected everything from shrunken heads to the “soap man”—a corpse whose body turned to a soap-like substance thanks to a chemical reaction to soil—most of it remains out of public view.

7. AN EXHIBIT ON NUCLEAR WAR STIRRED CONTROVERSY.

For a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay, the bomber plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II, museum organizers drew criticism in 1994 for presenting material that some veterans groups and members of Congress felt was politically charged. The museum agreed to omit text near the display that some felt dwelled on the horrific effects of the bomb, as well as references estimating the U.S. and rival casualties that might have been suffered if the bomb had not been deployed.

8. THE WEIRDEST ITEM THEY’VE CATALOGED IS A CRAPPY VIDEO GAME.

The box art for the Atari 2600 game E.T.

Amidst many internet lists of strange Smithsonian catalog items—taxidermied animals, beards, and other miscellanea—nothing seems more incongruous than the 2014 inclusion of a 1982 Atari video game based on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Renowned for being produced quickly and for helping to fuel the video game crash of the early 1980s, supplies of the cartridge were buried in a New Mexico landfill and only recently excavated. One went into the museum's archives.

9. THEY TURNED DOWN JIMMY DURANTE’S NOSE.

In the 1950s, actor and comedian Jimmy Durante was easily identified by his bulbous nose, a three-inch-long (from bridge to tip) feature that led to his nickname, “the Great Schnozzola.” Sensing a publicity opportunity, Durante’s management arranged for a makeup artist to create a plaster cast of Durante’s nose and offer it up to the Smithsonian as a piece of Americana. Frank Setzler, the museum’s head of anthropology was unimpressed. “Heavens, no,” he was quoted as saying. “Who would want that? The only place we could use it would be in the elephant display.”

10. AN UNDISCOVERED SPECIES OF DOLPHIN WAS LURKING IN THEIR INVENTORY.

A dolphin skull from a recently-discovered species

With so many specimens, the bowels of the Smithsonian almost certainly harbor secrets that can surprise even scientists. In 2016, two researchers in search of fossilized marine mammals stumbled across the skull of a 25-million-year-old river dolphin they named Arktocara yakataga. Said to have been found in Alaska, the dolphin may have dwelled in the Arctic. It was estimated that the skull—plucked from obscurity because one of the researchers found it “cute”—sat on the shelf for 50 years before being identified.

11. THEY’RE COMMITTED TO PRESERVING DOROTHY’S SLIPPERS.

Possibly the most iconic pair of footwear in pop culture, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz have become a Smithsonian trademark. In 2016, the Institution successfully raised over $300,000 on Kickstarter to build a state-of-the-art preservation case to protect the kicks from deterioration. While star Judy Garland wore several pairs during filming and the Smithsonian’s are mismatched, it’s clear that visitors want to keep them in condition for any future travels along the yellow brick road.

12. SMITHSON EVENTUALLY BECAME PART OF THE COLLECTION.

James Smithson's final resting place within the walls of the Smithsonian

In 1904, some 75 years after his death in Italy, Smithson’s remains were about to be disturbed. U.S. Smithsonian officials were alerted that his grave site would be displaced because of a nearby stone quarry expansion. The Institution took the opportunity to have his casket shipped to America so he could be interred at the site of his legacy—the Smithsonian itself. Escorted by Alexander Graham Bell, the casket traveled 14 days by sea. The body was entombed and topped off by a marker in the Smithsonian, where it remains viewable by the general public.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios