Bad… no eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil! Science?

by endlesspsych

(Originally posted on alternative nation.)

There are a number of things people ask you when you tell them you are studying psychology. Some appear to assume you are psychic and ask “Do you know what I am thinking?” Others seem to hold the notion that those studying psychology have an obsessive compulsive tendency to constant psychoanalysis “I bet you’ve been analyzing me all night?”(Note to fellow male psychologists on the odd occasion said individual is an attractive female don’t respond “Naw, I was just staring at your tits. It rarely goes down well…). Another common myth is that psychologists become psychologists out of some inherent need to understand what’s wrong with them. As clearly a desire to understand the arcane and mysterious workings of the human brain and behavior is indicative of some deep seeded trauma or repression. I can assure you in my case its not. I ended up doing psychology because, by happy accident, I put down psychology and computing on my UCAS form and soon discovered that computers hated me as much as I hated them.

Well that and I wanted to attach electrodes to people.

Unfortunately a number of ‘maverick’ psychologists ruined my nefarious electrocution based schemes by performing a number of experiments that resulted in the psychological associations of the world recommending and enforcing codes of ethics.

In short they ruined it for us all.

There are three truly infamous psychology experiments that will come up in any discussion of human research ethics. These being the shocking Milgram study, the inescapable Stanford prison experiment and that giant among ethical abuses the behaviorist study of phobias involving the legendary “Little Albert“.

The Milgram study gets somewhat of an unfair rep. as far as ethics is concerned. The study, in my opinion, should be held up as an example of how to conduct empirical social research. If only for the fact Milgram did not simply rely on that small group of people on whom most of the assumptions of Western Psychology are based – the undergraduate student. He tested normal everyday folk, a truly heterogeneous sample (well a heterogeneous sample of Americans anyway), men and women (although women were only represented in one condition) of varying social and economic standing. They were tested across nineteen conditions with exactly the rigor experimental social psychologists should employ but seldom do. But yet the Milgram study is not lauded for its attempts at attaining validity through thorough sampling (and having read that sentence back I can perhaps understand why – it’s hardly headline grabbing is it?). If anything the rigor employed is attached to the end of explanations of the experiments infamy.

“Infamy, Infamy they’ve all got it infamy!” But why?

Well Milgram lied. Ethically that was the only dubious part of the experimental design. The experiment will be familiar to anyone who has seen the start of Ghostbusters although it has less to do with the paranormal and a lot more to do with the banality of evil. Milgram, of Jewish extraction, was interested in the trials of Nazi war criminals and their defense that they were “only following orders.” He wanted to construct a situation to see if the blind obedience, that lead to genocide, under the Third Reich could be replicated in a largely middle class American University town. Under the guise of testing the effects of punishment on learning, Milgram hooked up an experimental stooge to an electric generator and asked a subject to shock them when they made an error. The stooge was not shocked but the subject was unaware of this. Everyone expected that the demands of an experimenter in a lab coat would not be enough to cause someone to harm another human being. Surely their innate morality would override the insistence of some schmuck in a lab coat? Surely only the most sadistic would administer all the shocks?

Nope. In the first ‘baseline’ condition subjects, some clearly in great distress, nearly all shocked the poor stooge to the full extent of the generators power.

Milgram, in many respects, was hoist by his own petard. It is not the fact he lied to his subjects (back before the pretence of ‘equality’ entered experimental research and we had to start calling our victims “participants”). In fact his methodology passed the IRB (Internal Review Board – bunch of academics sitting and deciding if your research is ethical essentially) without much fuss. Milgram even went as far to seek the advice of a number of Psychiatrists as to the effects and outcome of his experiment unsurprisingly none thought that any harm would come to the subjects and indeed all guessed the overall results incorrectly. However, it was not Milgrams methods that caused the controversy and the accusations of unethical practice. No. It was the pressure the subjects appeared to be under, although many reported being happy to have been involved in such an important scientific study after the fact, and more then this is was his results.

Milgram has shown that even in very flimsy circumstances individuals would become obedient. He had provided a strong piece of empirical evidence to support the “banality of evil”. The idea that normal men and women would do terrible things simply because they were urged to do so by an experimenter was uncomfortable reading. It meant the atrocities of the Third Reich could happen anywhere.

While Milgrams results are what really got him into trouble he was lucky enough to live in less litigious times. His experiment neither led to him being sued nor incarcerated. His old Junior High classmate, Phillip Zimbardo, also had reason to be thankful for living in less litigious times but it was not he who was threatened with incarceration.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is not really much of an experiment more an artificially controlled observational study. Through a rigorous selection process involving lots of boring psychometric tests and assessments a random sample of undergraduate students were selected to take place. The barrage of tests and assessments conducted (disclaimer: – I may have exaggerated this for dramatic effect) identified all the volunteers as ‘normal’. No volunteers were found to have tendencies towards depression, stress, sadism or brutalism. They were simply all-American teens and tweens looking to make a bit of cash on the side by participating in some zany professors experiment on incarceration.

The all-American participants were divided into two groups: prisoners and guards, and its worth noting that in the climate of political activism and anti-war protest every one of these all American teens noted their preference for performing the role of prisoner as “people don’t really like guards.”. It wouldn’t be long until the situation sucked every one of the participants, the research team and occasional visitors into a prison run, not by the state, but by psychologists. Indeed the first ‘prisoner’ had to be released suffering from something akin to a mental breakdown within the first 36 hours. Yet the experiment continued. With devotion similar to Milgrams earlier button-pressers the research team came to view themselves as wardens of their prison. The dual role Zimbardo took as head researcher and prison warden undoubtedly led to the studies unwarranted longevity and allowed photographs and video to be produced that were not dissimilar to the abuses recently carried out in Abu Gharib prison.

Like Milgrams experiment it is the results of the experiment that generate allegations of unethical practice. Unlike Milgrams experiment it is not the reported results but the results of incarcerating some participants and elevating others to the status of guards. Prisoners soon started behaving as if they were in a real prison, with no hope of release, and surrendered to the guards increasingly cruel and sexualized demands. What started off as something that could possibly be excused as banter (numerous ways were concocted to get the prisoners to count their numbers) not much can excuse having the prisoners play leap frog so their genitila were exposed and then simulate sodomy on their cell mates. Behavior that would perhaps shock but not surprise in the real American penal system but when you consider this was occurring after six days in a University basement (without the involvement of fraternities or alcohol) it’s almost beyond the pale. To think the participants could so eagerly accept their roles and suffer, or dole out such psychological abuses, is hard to contemplate.

Zimbardo proposed that the power of the situation was to blame. The individuals involved left their old identities behind via reflective sunglasses and jump suits in the case of the guards or trouserless tunics and numbers in the case of the prisoners. By going through a process of deindividuation neither the prisoners nor the guards had the usual social airs and graces to fall back on in such conditions it’s perhaps not surprising they adopted their new roles with alarming relish.

Unlike participants in Milgrams study the fallout for the participants from the SPE was considerable and conducted in the full glare of the media. Participants found themselves not only having to cope with what they had done and what they had allowed to be done to them during the experiment, but also had to answer to a baying media seeking answers. Trying to discover what turns ‘normal’ young men into helpless objects of abuse or tyrannical abusers. Again the idea it could happen here, with our children, brothers or classmates was an uncomfortable one.

Unlike the participants of the SPE who had to endure the media spotlight for the full duration of their fifteen minutes another, this time unwitting, participant in an actual unethical experiment, vanished and became the stuff of social science myth. I refer to Little Albert – the little kid who was conditioned to be scared of everything.

Well, OK, not everything, but thanks to Watson and Raynors 1920’s study, Little Albert was subjected to arguably greater torment than Pavlov’s’ salivating dogs. At least they only had to endure a bell ringing and short-lasting hunger pangs Albert had a metal bar or claw hammer repeatedly struck behind his back to produce a cacophonous noise! All in the name of an attempt to illustrate, note not prove, classical conditioning operated in the “development and modification of human emotional behavior.” Or in loaded layman’s terms to scare the little bastard good and proper to prove they could make him shit scared of anything they wanted including rats, rabbits, dogs, a sealskin coat and a Santa Claus Mask. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Little Albert also developed an aversion to Watson’s hair. Which, to be fair, if some bastard was smashing a metal pole behind my back at regular intervals and making me touch rodents, canines and sinister festive facial hair I reckon I’d develop more then an aversion to their hair.

This is one of the most widely cited studies in psychology, perhaps proving we really are all sadistic bastards at heart, longing for the days when we could get away with this kind of shit with impunity, and it’s the most erroneously described study as well. This is in no small part down to the efforts of Watson himself, who altered details of the experiment in subsequent revisions and added the occasional detail such as the reconditioning of Albert after the fact.

By virtue of the fact it’s not mentioned in the original papers we can probably assume that Watson allowed Little Albert to leave the hospital where the experiment was conducted conditioned to fear rats, rabbits, sealskin coats and fake Santa beards which, no doubt, put a downer on many of Albert’s seasonal celebrations.

Possibly the worst thing about this experiment (I defy anyone to defend it from an ethical standpoint considering the years of torment it’s likely Little Albert suffered with his amazing generalizable phobia of anything remotely furry) is that it produced uninterpretable results. The design and subsequent fudging of the facts has essentially negated any spurious scientific work Watson, the mad behaviorist, may have been able to use to justify the study. An entire data set had to be disregarded because in one condition to attempt to make Albert fear a dog the loud CLANG of the metal bar being struck scared the dog, who subsequently embarked on a frenzy of barking, scaring not only Albert but the researchers and observers also.

The length of the experiment also beggars belief. Milgrams subjects had but a few hours at most to endure. The SPE was called to a halt after six days. But Little Albert was ‘conditioned’ for 31 days. A whole month of ultimately useless (and to an extent largely discredited) psychological research for a probable lifetime of fear and anxiety.

I say probable because no one seems to know for sure what happened to Little Albert. He vanished into the ether and perhaps understandably never appears to have come into public contact with a psychologist or psychiatrists since. Which probably only contributes more to the myth of the Little Albert story. Its kind of like the social science equivalent of a horror story-cum-morality tale told around campfires to spook the undergrads. This is what happens if you’re an unethical bastard.

All of which has the rather unhappy conclusion that I can’t attach electrodes to people. Ah well you can’t win them all.
There are far worse examples that come to mind – Donald Ewan Cameron and his depatterning experiments are truly terrible and put nurse ratchet to shame (read more in the torture post) for one – but these three always seem to pop up in any elementary discussion of research ethics in psychology. If you can think of anymore please do let me know.