Day 595: Of Milgrams And Monsters

originally published August 17, 2013

A couple weeks ago I wrote a piece about unethical human experimentation in the United States. Due to the overwhelming response (which consisted mainly of my bulldog-in-chief, Rufus, wagging his tail when I’d talk to him about it), I thought I’d delve into the subject a little deeper. I’ve found two specific experiments which are infamous enough to warrant a deeper look. Both are dripping with ethical questions, none of which do I plan on resolving here.

Hey, it’s a thousand words in a day. I can only offer so many grand solutions to the universe’s ethereal catechisms with this kind of deadline.

In one case, strangers were invited to torture one another. In the other, researchers tortured children. But all in the name of science, of course. How beneficial these cases were is up for debate, which really adds an extra air of stink to the whole affair. At least if these experiments had led to a cure for something, the psychological sacrifice wouldn’t leave such a rancid taste.

Just a few months after the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann began in Jerusalem, Stanley Milgram at Yale University wanted to test whether Eichmann should be considered an accomplice, or whether he was simply following orders. Here’s what he had people doing.

Two volunteers were chosen, one assigned to be the ‘teacher’, the other the ‘learner’. The teacher would be able to verbally communicate with the learner, but they were in separate rooms. The teacher would read off a list of word pairs to the learner, then quiz the learner on the pairs. For every incorrect answer, the teacher was instructed to press a button to give out an electric shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing every time.

The catch was that the researcher didn’t care about the learner – the learner was always a planted actor. There were no shocks, only a tape recorder with a zapping sound effect and the actor yelling in pain. If the volunteer expressed a desire to stop – usually when the actor began pounding on the wall in pretend agony – he was told to keep going, that the experiment must be seen to completion. The test would only stop when the volunteer either outright refused to continue, or if he had fake-zapped the actor three times at the maximum voltage.

65% of participants kept going to the maximum voltage. Milgram and his associates sat there and watched their volunteers sweat, stutter and tremble, but for the most part, follow orders. Numerous repetitions of the experiment produced roughly the same results. That’s a pretty good ratio of blind followers.

Questions were raised as to the ethical considerations and outright dickishness of putting volunteers through this sort of psychological agony. Most people tend to lean away from sociopathic tendencies and don’t want to harm others, yet after all was said and done, 99% of volunteers surveyed expressed either positive or neutral feelings about having participated. It doesn’t appear any lasting damage was done.

But we’re also left mulling over the validity of the experiment. It does nothing to prove that Nazi soldiers were blindly following orders, since the conditions for the two circumstances were completely different, apart from one person inflicting pain on the other. For one thing, the experiment lasted for an hour. A Nazi soldier at a concentration camp would have months or years to deal with what they were doing. Also, the volunteers were told the other person would receive no lasting physical damage – Nazis knew they were killing people. You also have to factor out the racism and hatred that went into the Holocaust. Milgram’s experiment serves as an interesting statement on human nature, but does nothing to explain the actions of history’s biggest bad guys.

And speaking of bad guys, how about the Monster Study in Davenport, Iowa in 1939? Now here’s a case of human experimentation in the lab of pure evil. Wendell Johnson at the University of Iowa wanted to learn more about positive and negative reinforcement when it came to speech therapy. To do this he unleashed Mary Tudor, his grad student, on a room full of clueless orphans.

That’s right – these ‘volunteers’ were selected because there were no parents around to file a complaint, or maybe a lawsuit.

Twenty-two kids were chosen from a veteran’s orphanage. They were split into four groups:

  • Five kids with notable stutterers were in group 1A. They would be told their speech was fine, and given some positive reinforcement.
  • Five other kids with stuttering problems would make up group 1B. They would receive negative reinforcement, being told their speech was “as bad as they say.”
  • Six kids who had no stuttering issues would be placed in group 2A. They would be told that their speech was not normal, they were beginning to stutter, and that they must take immediate action to correct themselves.
  • The other six kids were in group 2B. No stutter, and they received positive reinforcement on their fine diction.

Can you see the years of therapy coming for some of these little foundlings?

One of the things told to group 2A was that they were to ‘do anything to keep from stuttering’ and that they should refrain from speaking unless they knew they’d do it right. If the end result was to damage the kids in 2A, they hit the jackpot right away. All of them started doing poorly in school, and many of the kids hardly said a word to anyone – even their closest friends – out of fear of stuttering.

Whether or not there was any positive effect on the kids in 1A who received positive encouragement for their speech, I have no clue. The study was never published, as horror stories of human experimentation were seeping out of Japan and Nazi Germany, and Dr. Johnson didn’t want his reputation to be fecalized by this horrendous breech of common sense and basic humanity.

The apt term ‘Monster Study’ was coined by Johnson’s peers, who couldn’t believe the guy went to an orphanage to pick on institutionalized kids to be targets for this cruel experiment. In 2001, the University of Iowa formally apologized for the study, mostly because an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News broke the story to the public earlier that year. The State of Iowa then awarded six of the former orphans $925,000 for lifelong emotional and psychological scars.

Sometimes the quest for knowledge gets slapped in the face with the slimy fish of poor judgment. Mary Tudor came to regret her role in the Monster Study, whereas Stanley Milgram stood by his work to the very end. I suppose hindsight and an after-the-fact assessment of damage done can make this all seem clearer years later, but come on… torturing orphans?

Science never needs to be such an asshole.

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