5 Unethical Psych Experiments

Project MK-ULTRA: The CIA’s Program of Research in Behavioral Modification

From 1953 until the early 1970’s, Project MK-ULTRA was the CIA’s code name for a mind-control research program run by the Office of Scientific Intelligence. Their purpose was to study mind-control, interrogation methods and behavior modification. In order to manipulate mental states and alter brain function, doctors administered various types of drugs such as LSD, mescaline, heroin, morphine, psilocybin, scopolamine, marijuana, alcohol, and sodium pentothal, usually without the subject’s awareness or consent.

Experiments were tested on CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, government agents, prostitutes, members of the public and mentally ill patients [source].

Research and goals for the project included:
• Substances which would enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion during interrogation and so-called “brain-washing”.
• Substances which would promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public.
• Materials and physical methods which would produce amnesia for events preceding and during their use.
• Substances which would produce physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia, etc.
• A material which would cause mental confusion of such a type that the individual under its influence would find it difficult to maintain a fabrication under questioning.

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Human Resources. August 3, 1977. Retrieved on 2007-08-22. In 1964, the project was renamed MK-SEARCH. This project attempted to create a “perfect truth drug” which could then be used to interrogate suspected Soviet spies during the Cold War. In 1973, CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all MK-ULTRA files be destroyed. A full investigation of MK-ULTRA will therefore never be possible.

Project MK-ULTRA was the inspiration behind The Manchurian Candidate.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Led by famous psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971, was executed in order to show how roles define behaviour. Zimbardo tried to demonstrate that prison guards and convicts would behave in ways they thought was required. Participants were offered $15 per day and the study was to last two weeks.

Twenty-four male subjects, considered to be most mentally and emotionally stable, were chosen. Zimbardo divided the participants evenly into guards and prisoners, at random. He himself was going to take on the role of prison warden. The guards were given one rule: no physical punishment allowed, but other than that, they were able to run the prison as they see fit. The guards were outfitted in military attire and sunglasses and also provided batons. The prisoners, in contrast, were dressed in smocks and refused permission to wear underwear.

Prisoners were only to be addressed by their identity numbers and also had a small chain around one ankle. On the first day of the experiment, prisoners were instructed to stay at home and wait to be ‘called’ for the start of the experiment. Their homes were raided by the real Paolo Alto police, they were charged with armed-robbery, read their rights and had their fingerprints and mug shots taken. They were strip-searched and taken to the basement of Stanford: ‘the mock prison’.

The guards were brutal, humiliating and demoralizing to the prisoners. By the second day prisoners were already revolting, wanting to be let out. Zimbardo and his colleagues were also beginning to be affected by the experiment, trying to keep the revolting prisoner subjects in detention and siding with guards.
On the sixth day, Christina Maslach, a recent Stanford Ph.D., (also the fiancée of Zimbardo), was brought in to interview the guards and prisoners. She was stunned by what she saw and demanded that the experiment be terminated. Apparently, Maslach was the only person to even raise any concerns out of the fifty external visitors that had come to examine the experiment. Zimbardo certainly managed to prove his theory, revealing a disturbing truth about the potential for evil that lies in human nature.

Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy is a psychiatric treatment where a patient is exposed to a stimulus while simultaneously being subjected to some form of discomfort (the therapy undergone by Stanley Kubrick’s twisted character Alex DeLarge in the 1971 classic, A Clockwork Orange). Used in order to ‘cure’ homosexuality, it was only in 2006 that aversion therapy to treat homosexuality was considered to be a violation of the codes of conduct and professional guidelines of the American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association.

In 1962, 29 year old Captain Billy Clegg-Hill of the Royal Tank Regiment, was arrested in a police swoop in Southampton and sentenced to six months of aversion therapy. After three days of therapy, he died. Doctors and authorities covered up his death, claiming he died of “natural causes”. But thirty four years after his death, the doctor who conducted the post-mortem confirmed that he had actually died from a coma and convulsions resulting from injections of apomorphine, a potent vomit-inducing drug. Doctor’s would show Clegg-Hill pin-up pictures of men, then inject him with apomorphine, causing him to become violently ill. The doctor’s believed that he would eventually associate men with nausea and vomiting. The idea of homosexuality would be so repugnant that he would subsequently become straight.

In 1965, 19 year old Peter Price was sent to a psychiatric hospital to treat his homosexuality. Doctors forced him to lie in a bed filled with his own vomit, urine and feces for three days while they would show him images of half-naked men, inject him with drugs and play tapes telling him he was a ‘dirty queer’. He was also administered electric shocks, while being shown erotic pictures of attractive men.

The Monster Study

Dubbed the ‘monster study’, the experiment was conducted by speech expert Wendell Johnson, led in part by graduate student Mary Tudor Jacobs in 1939. Johnson believed that stuttering was a learned behavior, attributed to outside factors such as constant criticism from a parent to its child for even the slightest speech imperfections. 22 orphan children with no prior speech impediment were chosen for the experiment. Wendell’s goal was to induce the disorder in orphans.

One group of orphans received praise for positive speech therapy whereas the other group was belittled, badgered and told they were stutterers. By the end of the study, none of the test subjects in the negative therapy group became stutterers, but the experience caused them low self-esteem and irreparable damage.

Little Albert

In order to determine whether fear was innate or a conditioned response, father of behaviorism, John Watson, used a nine month old orphan he nicknamed Little Albert to test his theory. Watson began the experiment by placing Little Albert in the middle of a room. A white laboratory rat was placed near Albert, who was allowed to play with it. Albert was not scared.

For two months he was exposed to various things without any sort of conditioning; a white rabbit, a monkey, masks etc… Watson placed Albert in a room again with the rat, however this time, when Albert would touch the rat, Watson would make loud sounds behind him, such as the striking of a steel bar with a hammer. When this occurred, Albert would get frightened and begin to cry. Watson continued to do this until eventually, Albert became very distressed whenever exposed to the rat. Eventually, Albert associated anything fluffy or white with the loud noise. Little Albert was never desensitized to his fear and was released from the hospital before Watson was able to do so.


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