Here are three science experiments on humans in the 20th century that are now infamous for being outrageously unethical: The Stanford Prison Study, the Milgram experiment, and the Tuskegee syphilis study. These cases are widely studied by students of psychology when considering the ethics of scientific experimentation.
Infamous Modern Experiments Lacking Ethics
Institutional Review Boards (AKA Independent Ethics Committees or Ethical Review Boards)
Universities now have institutional review boards (IRBs) to monitor the ethics of experimental studies in the social sciences and health fields. Often composed of a diverse membership from the local community, IRBs have the power to approve or deny all research proposals submitted by the university. IRB’s follow strict guidelines and rules to ensure research is ethical and the physical and psychological health of human experimental subjects is protected. In the past, these review boards did not exist, and ethical standards were much more lax.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
In 1971, Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo created an experiment to study the cognitive mindset of both prisoners and prison guards. The basement of the Stanford psychology building was converted to a temporary, makeshift prison, and 24 male volunteers were equally divided and randomly assigned to play roles as either prison guards or prisoners. Although the experiment had been designed to run for two weeks, it was shut down after six days due to the cruelty of some volunteer “prison guards,” a succession of psychological collapses, and a hunger strike among the “prisoners.” In a 2011 BBC article, Clay Ramsey, who played one of the volunteer prisoners, was quoted as saying, “The best thing about it, is that it ended early, the worst thing is that the author, Zimbardo, has been rewarded with a great deal of attention for 40 years so people are taught an example of very bad science.”
In 2015, an independent film by the name “The Stanford Prison Experiment” was released, starring Billy Crudup as Zimbardo. That film won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival.
Questioning how Nazi operatives could have carried out the Holocaust, psychologist Stanley Milgram of Yale University devised a 1961 experiment to test if conscience could be nullified with orders from an authority figure. Instructed by a man wearing a white lab coat, recruited subjects were told to quiz the memory of an individual sitting in an adjacent room, and to administer electric shocks of increasing voltage with each wrong answer. With false electric shocks and the person in the adjacent room feigning screams, the whole procedure was a ruse designed to test how far the subjects could be pushed into inflicting pain onto others.
In the video below, you can see one participant asking to stop the test after hearing fake cries of help from the next room, pleading, “Get me out of here!” The participant is then scolded, “The participant requires you to continue…” After hesitating, the test continues as the distressed participant must deliver what he thinks is another shock of 180 volts. After the next shock, the fake victim screams “I can’t stand the pain. Let me out of here!” The participant states, “He can’t stand it. I’m not going to kill that man in there. I mean, who’s going to take the responsibility if anything happens to that gentleman?” Once again, the participant is instructed to continue, “I’m responsible for anything that happens here. Continue please.” Perhaps surprisingly, the participant reluctantly continues with the test.
Results showed that over sixty percent of volunteers could be commanded into delivering what they were told was a fatal shock. The experiment is now considered to be unethical due to the psychological damage that it could inflict on subjects.
The Tuskegee Study
One of the most infamous and unethical studies ever acknowledged, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service for forty years (1932-1972). The experiment involved 600 African American men (399 of whom had syphilis, 201 who did not) who were intentionally untreated and not told of their condition in order to study the effects of syphilis. The men were told they were being treated for “bad blood” which was used to describe a variety of conditions. In exchange for their participation, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. The men were never informed of the real purpose of the study.
A CNN article from 2010 reported that by the end of the study “…28 men had died of syphilis and 100 others had died of related complications. As a result of the experiment, at least 40 wives contracted syphilis and 19 children had it from birth.” Whistle-blower and public health service worker Peter Buxton is considered the catalyst for the end of the experiment by providing information to a reporter in 1970. The story broke two years later in 1972.
How do you feel about the unethical nature of these experiments? Are there unethical experiments currently being conducted that are hidden from the public? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.
Updated February 9, 2016
Originally published May 2014