Nowadays ethics and morality play a massive part in what can and cannot be done during psychological experiments. There are strict rules that experimenters must adhere to during the whole experimental procedure, from recruiting participants, to the experiment itself. However, standards haven’t always been so strict and some of the most famous and influential studies in psychology are the most unethical of them all.
The experiment conducted by John B. Watson, that’s now known as The Little Albert Experiment, is a study of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is widely associated with Ivan Pavlov and his dogs and it involves creating a response in an animal or a human towards an object or sound that previously received a neutral response.
The Little Albert Experiment tested classical conditioning on a nine month old baby that Watson named Albert B. At the beginning of the experiment, the boy loved animals and had a particular bond with a white rat. Every time the rat was present, Watson started using a loud sound of a hammer hitting metal. The young boy soon developed a fear of the rat, along with most other animals and furry objects.
The boy died of an unrelated illness aged just 6 so it’s impossible to say whether or not the phobias that Watson produced would have continued into adulthood. However, he was never desensitised to the phobias, which is why the experiment is considered so unethical.
Asch’s experiments on conformity
In 1951 Solomon Asch did an experiment on conformity. He placed participants in groups and asked them to compare line lengths. Each group was shown a reference line along with three others. They were asked to identify which of the three lines was closest in length to the reference line. Each participant was unknowingly put into a group of actors that had been instructed to give the right answer on the first two occasions and the wrong answer thereafter. The aim of the experiment was to see whether the participant would conform and also give the wrong answer to avoid being the sole outlier.
Of the 50 participants, 37 of them went along with the incorrect group despite the correct answer being obvious.
Despite the study causing no harm to participants, it could not be replicated today because participants were deceived during the experiment and Asch failed to obtain any informed consent.
Milgram and obedience to authority
Stanley Milgram, psychologist at Yale, did an experiment on authority and obedience to try and understand how so many people came to participate in the disturbing acts of the holocaust. He began to conduct his experiments on obedience in 1961, with the theory that people are inclined to obey authority figures which would mean that the majority of people involved in the holocaust were obeying orders.
The participants were told that they were taking part in a study on memory and paired up with another ‘participant’, who was actually an actor that had been recruited for the experiment. The pair were then assigned roles of learner and teacher (the real participant was always the teacher) and they were moved to separate rooms.
The teacher was given instructions to press a button and ‘shock’ the learner every time they got a question wrong and the shocks increased in intensity each time. Eventually, as the shocks got stronger, the actor would start to complain of pain and this was followed by screaming.
Despite the screams, the majority of participants continued to deliver the shocks, despite the clear pain the learner was suffering, for as long as they were instructed.
This is another unethical study that would not be allowed today because the participants were left open to psychological harm. At the end of the experiment it was revealed to the participants that if the shocks had been real the majority would have killed the learner, a fact that could have left them psychologically traumatised.
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