How an Extreme Psychological Study May Have Affected a Young Ted Kaczynski

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As a Psych 101 student in college, you may have participated in experiments grad students concocted as part of their research papers or theses. Ted Kaczynski did, and it was so extreme, it may have helped shape the worldview of the man who would later build and send 16 bombs, killing three and injuring 23.

In 1959, 17-year-old Kaczynski was a sophomore at Harvard. He had completed high school at 15, then enrolled at the Ivy League school at an age when most teenagers are cramming for their driver’s license tests.

At this young, impressionable age, the future Unabomber was recruited for a psychological experiment run by famed psychologist Henry A. Murray. But unlike the ones you and I probably participated in during college, the experiment Murray conducted lasted three years.

In it, Kaczynski and 21 other students were told to develop their personal philosophies on life. Then they would debate that philosophy against another undergraduate student. But as it turned out, this was no friendly discourse. When they showed up to debate, the test subjects were attached to electrodes, seated in a chair facing a one-way mirror, and subjected to hot, bright lights. The debate wasn’t with a fellow undergrad at all, but a law student who had been told to go to town on the ideals of these young men. To make matters worse, they then had to watch video of the argument after it was over, which forced them to go through the humiliation all over again. Murray himself called them "vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive" attacks.

Prior to this particular stint at Harvard, Murray worked for the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, the precursor to the CIA) during WWII, training spies to handle intense interrogation from the enemy. Some experts believe that he simply continued that line of study on unwitting undergrads.

Did having his morals and values ridiculed and abused push Kaczynski over the edge and eventually make him punish those who didn’t believe in his manifesto—including university professors? Or did the brutal psychological study have no effect on Kaczynski at all? Perhaps the future terrorist had social problems long before he stepped into Murray’s office? We may never know—the Murray Center has sealed any files relating to Ted Kaczynski and the results of the experiment he was part of, saying, "We have a very strong policy of maintaining the confidentiality of people who participate in studies archived here. This particular file has been permanently removed, with the reason being that we cannot protect its confidentiality anymore."

April 3, 2015 - 1:00pm
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