20 Famous Studies On Humans That Could Never Happen Today


Scientific experiments on humans are the holy grail when it comes to the psychological study of human behavior… testing rats or monkeys can only get a researcher so far. But with human testing comes a very different set of ethics, and the infamous human experiments listed below violated those ethics in some truly horrible ways. Brace yourself for some disturbing information on real-life human scientific experiments.

What are the craziest experiments ever conducted on humans? This list of crazy in-humane studies will leave you feeling extremely uneasy every time you come in range of a laboratory. Subject college students to a prison environment? Check. Torture a baby until it’s afraid of Santa Claus? You bet. Tell orphans they have terrible speech problems to generate terrible speech problems? That’s been done, too.

Some might call this interesting psychology. Others might call it Science. A few might just puke. To study human behavior and experiment on humans can lead to critical breakthroughs, or they can cause irreversible problems. These experiments did both. Whatever you think about these studies, many of them are of the most famous psychology experiments ever conducted.

    David Reimer was the subject of a gender study conducted by Psychologist John Money from 1965-1980, to see whether gender was innate or conditioned. Reimer experienced a botch circumcision in infancy during which his penis was cut off. Money thought that Reimer would have a better life being given a vagina and conditioned to grow up female. Reimer grew up as “Brenda” and until age 14, didn’t know he was born male despite behaving like a boy.

    During his childhood, Money continued to condition Reimer to “act” female and forced him and his twin brother to enact various sexual poses and genital inspection, as Money argued childhood sexual rehearsal played a role in adult gender identity formation. Reimer did get a reverse sex change as an adult but the damage was already done – he tragically committed suicide at age 38.


    The Stanford Prison Experiment

    The Stanford prison experiment took place over the span of one week in August in 1971. The experiment studied the psychological effects of young men becoming either a prisoner or prison guard. Head researcher, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, allowed the study to continue uninterrupted while prisoners were subject to assault as psychological torture at the hands of the guards.

    In fact he encouraged it, telling the guards, “You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy … We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways.”

    Some examples of abuse included guards attacking prisoners with fire extinguishers, refusing to let prisoners urinate or defecate in anything but a bucket, and forcing them to sleep on concrete. The study, which was supposed to last 14 days, was abruptly stopped after six due to the chaos. 


    Milgram Experiment

    The Milgram experiment was a series of psychology experiments that measured participants’ willingness to obey an authority figure when said authority figure instructed the participants to complete acts that were in contrast with the participants’ values.

    The study took place on the Yale University campus in 1963 and was administered by Dr. Stanley Milgram. The idea of the study was to see, like the Nazis claimed, if it was possible for good people to “just be following orders.” In the experiment, a student was instructed to issue electroshocks to a subject with a heart condition whenever the subject answered incorrect questions. In reality, the shocks weren’t real, the subject was an actor, but the decision by the student to administer the shocks to the pleading subject was.

    Before the study, Dr. Milgram predicted only 3.5% of students would shock the subject at the maximum voltage allowed, but in reality 65% of students did. The results of the experiment supported the hypothesis that it’s possible for people to obey orders when they are in opposition to their conscience.


    The Monster Study

    The Monster Study was a speech therapy study conducted on 22 orphan children in Davenport, IA, in 1939. Dr. Wendell Johnson, a University of Iowa professor, oversaw the experiment. The children were separated into two groups which half were praised for their speech while the others, many with no speech problems, were belittled for every word they said and were told they were stuttering. Many of the children in the belittled group developed permanent speech problems. 

    Project ARTICHOKE

    Project ARTICHOKE was a CIA study conducted in 1951 that asked the question, “Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?” In an attempt to gain total control, the CIA used special psychological interrogation methods such as hypnosis, isolation, and LSD. The results of the study were inconclusive, and the results of the memo stated, “It could not be determined from available file information when the hypnotic experiments actually began or were caused to be ceased.”

    Project QKHILLTOP

    Project QKHILLTOP was a CIA-funded study conducted by Cornell psychologist Dr. Harold Wolff. After the Korean War, they used Communist brainwashing techniques on human subjects to study their effects. These included, but were not limited to: imprisonment, deprivation, humiliation, torture, and hypnoses. The goal of the study was to develop secret drugs to do their bidding for them.

    Landis’ Facial Expressions Experiment

    Psychology graduate student Carney Landis conducted an experiment at the University of Minnesota in 1924 to see whether all people have common facial expressions when feeling various emotions. The participants were made to smell ammonia, put their hands into a bucket of frogs, and watch pornography. The study took a turn for the worse when students were forced to decapitate a live rat. The study showed that humans do not have a common set of facial expressions tied to each emotion.

    Little Albert Experiment

    The Little Albert experiment was conducted in 1920 by Johns Hopkins University professor John B. Watson. Watson wanted to see if fear was innate or conditioned. To do this he exposed a two month old baby to variety of things (ranging from wool to live rats) without any conditioning. Albert showed no fear. Then, Watson exposed Albert to the same things but conditioned the baby to have a negative response by banging loud noises directly behind the babies’ head. Albert associated the noise with the object and developed a terrible fear of anything white and fluffy.


    The Aversion Project

    Between 1971 and 1989, the South Africa Apartheid Army conducted a top-secret program to root out homosexuality. Dr. Aubrey Levin headed the study and tried to convert gay soldiers with drugs, hormone treatment, sex changes, aversion shock therapy, and other psychologically damaging methods.

    Asch Conformity Experiments

    The Asch conformity experiments was a series of experiments led by Dr. Solomon Asch at Swarthmore College in the 1950s. The goal of the study was to see if people’s behaviors and opinions were dictated by physical evidence or conformity to the majority opinion.

    Groups of eight students participated in a task, but in reality only one student was real and the other seven were actors. When the actors gave the correct answer, 99% of test subjects agreed, but when the actors gave the wrong answer, only 25% of students disagreed, even though they seemed to know the answer was false. While the study itself might seem innocuous, Asch did not get informed consent from the participants which in today’s world would discount the experiment in its entirety. 


    Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes Exercise

    School teacher Jane Elliott started conducting the “Blue eyes-Brown eyes” experiment in 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. After she segregated her third grade class into two groups, brown eyes and blue eyes, she started treating one group superior and based it on phony scientific evidence. It only took one day for the superior group to act crueler to the inferior group. The exercise was the subject of much criticism, as critics claimed the study was emotionally damaging and that students didn’t know the purpose of the exercise. 

    Robbers Cave Study

    The Robbers Cave Experiments was a series of experiments conducted by psychologist Muzafer Sherif. Sherif told boys they were going to summer camp, and split them into two groups with limited contact. In the first stage of the study, the two groups competed for scarce territory and became increasingly hostile toward one another.

    In the second phase, Sherif introduced superordinate goals that we’re deemed to be of more consequence than the ongoing fight to see if the groups would work together. They did, and Sherif concluded groups can get along when they have a unified goal. The study was unethical, however, as the students were unaware their camp experience was just a study and their counselors were trained psychologists. 


    The Bystander Effect

    The bystander effect was first tested in 1968 by psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané, with its purpose to test whether people were more likely to help victims if fewer people were present. The study was done at Columbia University. In the first case, a person was left alone in an office setting and harmless smoke vapor entered through the vents. In the second case, a group of people were left alone in an office setting while harmless smoke vapor entered through the vents.

    The study showed that individuals were quicker and more likely to report the smoke vapor than groups were. As the study was repeated Darley and Latané introduced more alarming situations to the participants, and once, hired an actor to fake a seizure to test response time. Some of the participants suffered psychological consequences by being placed in such a panic-filled environment. 


    “Lost in the Mall” Technique

    The “Lost in the Mall” technique was a study first developed by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. She wanted to see if it was possible to plant false memories in subjects, so she told 24 participants four short narratives describing childhood events, all of which she claimed to be verified by family members. One of the stories however was false.

    The false story was a story of the participant being lost in a shopping mall for hours. One in four participants suddenly remembered the false event. The study showed how easy it is to plant a memory into the human mind. The study is controversial because other psychologists claim the traumatizing nature of the event is unnecessary, and to subject participants to it is a form of psychological torture.  


    The Third Wave

    The Third Wave is a study done by high school history teacher Ron Jones in 1967 to show how Germans could be compelled to join the Nazi movement. Jones spent five days creating a social movement called the Third Wave in his class that was based on the principals of discipline and order, both of which were compelling aspects of fascism. The movement extended outside the class and hundreds showed up to see the announcement of a New Wave presidential candidate. Jones stopped the study and told the participants that this is exactly how fascism was started.

    Developmental Processes in Schizophrenic Disorders

    Developmental Processes in Schizophrenic Disorders was an experiment held in 1985 at UCLA to gather data on schizophrenic relapse. Dr. Keith H. Nuechterlein asked several patients to forgo taking schizophrenia medication to see what would happen. The effects were devastating, and one participant, Tony LaMadrid, jumped out of a building six years later.

    Project MKUltra

    Project MKUltra was an illegal program conducted by the CIA on American and Canadian human subjects, with the goal of developing drugs and procedures to force confessions through mind control, interrogation, and torture. The size and scope of the program was broad and took place at 80 institutions between 1953-1973. The CIA used front organizations, such as brothels, to lure in subjects and conducted hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse, torture, and drug administration. 

    The Bobo Doll Experiment

    The Bobo doll experiment was a series of experiments conducted between 1961 and 1963. Dr. Albert Bandura sought to see if children mimic adult violence. Bandura exposed children to three scenarios. The first was adults showing aggressive behavior towards a Bobo doll. The second was a passive adult playing with the Bobo doll. The third formed a control group. The result showed that children exposed to the adults acting aggressively toward the doll were more likely to abuse the doll themselves. The study was controversial for causing aggression in children.

    Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction

    Reconstruction of automobile destruction was a 1974 psychological study to determine whether eyewitness memory can be distorted and manipulated. Psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer showed participants slides of a car accident, then asked pointed questions as if the were eye witnesses. Different questions yielded vastly different recounts. The study was controversial because it was seen as a form of brainwashing.

    The Facebook Experiment

    In 2014, Facebook conducted an experiment on actual users by testing the hypothesis, “Does seeing sad content cause users to post sad content? (and vice versa).” The answer was yes. Facebook tweaked their algorithm so that some users received a very bleak newsfeed one morning while others received a cheerful newsfeed.

    Those users mimicked what they saw and posted either happy or sad content, respectively. When users found out what Facebook was doing they were outraged and claimed Facebook did not have informed consent. The backlash means Facebook will probably never experiment again (or at least tell anyone about it).


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