Day 796: Science-Sanctioned Baby Torture

originally published March 6, 2014

I have always been an enthused spectator to science, particularly when it aims to show off just how messed up we humans can be. I wrote about the Milgram Experiment, in which doctors talked their subjects into inflicting painful electrical jolts through innocent people, and I’ve also touched on some of the more questionably ethical ways sciencey-types have tortured people in the name of figuring stuff out. It’s fun!

And there’s no shortage of potentially awful ideas in the psychological wheelhouse: hypotheses to explain our deviancy, antiquated pseudo-torture to test our malleability, and even borderline clinical dares, just to see how weak is our collective resolve. Prior to the drafting of the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics, all sorts of shenanigans were on the table.

Just as McDonald’s has successfully proven that our culture will go mad for a grotesque slab of questionable meatstuff, provided it’s a “limited time special” (a phenomenon I call McRibitis), a handful of strange experiments have exposed our tendencies for conformity in disturbing and stomach-swooshing ways.

Dr. John B. Watson, founder of behavioral psychology and apparently a part-time sadist, developed an exercise in experimental classical conditioning back in 1920. Working out of Johns Hopkins University, he and his assistant Rosalie Rayner wanted to see if they could implant an unnatural fear in an otherwise normal child’s mind. Watson observed that a child’s natural unconditioned response to a loud noise was fear. He wanted to use that un-doctored terror to condition a child to develop new fears.

I know, what an asshole right? Wait until you hear how he did it.

The child selected for Doc Watson’s cavalcade of madness was an eight-month-old baby, the daughter of a wet nurse at the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children. While recent evidence has shown that the mother – Arvilla Merritte – did not have her baby taken into Doc Watson’s lab without her knowledge, it’s likely she was pressured into allowing it, either by circumstance or the fear of losing her employment. Or maybe they simply didn’t tell her the details of what they were going to do to her kid.

To start off, “Little Albert” was exposed to a number of neutral stimuli: a rat, a puppy, a monkey, some masks, cotton balls and burning newspaper. The baby had no reason to fear any of these things, and he interacted with them as any normal infant would, with wonder and curiosity. Albert sat on the mattress and played with the lab rat, enjoying himself. Then, Watson would introduce a loud cacophonous noise behind Albert’s back whenever he’d touch the rat.

This was repeated several times. Eventually, they’d bring the rat in and Albert would begin to cry, trying to get away from it. Doc Watson had successfully implanted a fear of rats in this baby, simply by introducing a noisy unconditioned stimulus in order to create the conditioned response of panic in an otherwise unthreatening source. The doctor was right, his experiment proved it, so who cares just how dickish this all was?

What was truly fascinating to Doc Watson (and probably truly scarring for poor Little Albert) was the child’s ability to subsequently generalize his new fear. Seventeen days after the original experiment, a brown rabbit was brought to Albert – significantly different from the white rat – and it elicited the same frightened response. He was also terrified of a dog, a seal-skin coat, and Doc Watson himself when he appeared in a faux-Santa beard made up of cotton balls. It seems the kid was now terrified of anything fuzzy.

Little Albert was sent on his way with bundles of future content for his therapist in adulthood. Except he never made it there.

Douglas Merritte was discovered to be Little Albert’s true identity. Douglas never learned to walk or talk, and died at the age of six from hydrocephalus, a condition which it was later discovered he’d had from birth. This calls into question all of Doc Watson’s results. This was not an “otherwise healthy” boy, but rather one who had suffered from medical concerns all his life, including a battle with meningitis in 1919, a few months prior to the experiment’s start. So after all that torture of an infant’s fragile mind, the results remain questionably applicable at best. Well done, doctor.

I prefer it when scientists torture grown adults instead.

In 1966, Dr. Charles K. Hofling wanted to test the reaches of human conformity. He opted to do so by picking on nurses, perhaps because of the innate and unquestioned professional rapport between nurses and doctors, or maybe because he just didn’t like nurses much. Hofling’s question was this: if a doctor provided a potentially dangerous instruction to a nurse, would the nurse blindly follow through with it, or would she (not being sexist here – the nurses were all she’s in this experiment) question the directive? When this question was posed to a dozen nurses and 21 nursing students, all but two of the nurses said they would raise the proverbial red flag.

Of course, when a question like this is posed to a person, they are going to answer in the most sensible way that logic and professional excellence would expect. It’s one thing to say you’d do the unpopular but correct thing, quite another to actually do it. So naturally, Hofling put the query to a practical test.

Twenty-two nurses were selected at an unnamed US hospital. Each was telephoned by a “Dr. Smith”, who asked them to administer 20mg of the fictional drug “Astroten” to a patient. There was a bottle of Astroten in the cabinet, though that name didn’t show up on the list of approved medications (since Hofling had made it up). The label on the bottle clearly stated that 10mg was the maximum daily dose.

In theory, the nurses should have refused because the dose was too high, because the drug was not on the approved list, and because they didn’t know who Dr. Smith was. Of the 22 nurses Hofling had picked for this experiment, 21 of them blindly followed orders, and were stopped at the patient’s door, needle in hand, ready to plunge into the patient’s flesh. 21 out of 22.

In the nurses’ defense, doctors did often call in with instructions, and it wasn’t uncommon not to know every doctor involved with every patient at the hospital. Also, nurses tend to possess an inherent trust in the competence of doctors – this is crucial to the swift functionality of the medical world. The experiment did demonstrate our very human knack for conformity, but it also presented a result that could be interpreted in a number of different ways.

More importantly, it demonstrated the insatiable thirst for weird psychological torture that has made the scientific world so damn interesting over the past few centuries.

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