Nothing is more complicated than the human mind, and it is only relatively recently in human history – the late 19th century – that the field of psychology developed. Unfortunately, the concept of the humane treatment of subjects developed even more recently than that. Although purportedly conducted for the good of humanity, here is a look into seven psychological experiments that went brutally awry.
1. The Stanford Prison Experiment
Recently dramatized into a feature film, the Stanford Prison Experiment has been making the rounds as a lesson of caution and terror since it first took place in 1971. The infamous psychologist Philip Zimbardo sought to break down how people conform to roles of power and powerlessness by conducting a prison-environment experiment in which people were assigned at random to be either guards or prisoners. The results were truly horrifying, as the guards proceeded to harass and abuse the prisoners to the point of emotional disturbance.
2) The CIA Mind Control Program
In the early 1950s, the CIA began an experimental mind control program called Project MK-Ultra that lasted until 1973. With subjects including Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, MK-Ultra included dosing people with LSD without their knowledge or consent in an attempt to discover methods of mind control.
MK-Ultra also included experiments with ecstasy, heroin, barbiturates and methamphetamine, among other drugs. Truly MK-Ultra is a tragedy stranger than fiction, although One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey participated voluntarily.
3) The Milgram Experiment
Following the atrocious revelations of the Holocaust, Stanley Milgram sought to test the hypothesis that there was something that made Germans likely to commit genocide. Milgram set up an experiment that asked average members of the public to question a man that was attached to an electric-shock device.
When the man answered incorrectly, he was to be administered shocked with increasing intensity. The man didn’t actually receive any shocks and was a paid actor, but the Milgram Experiment revealed a distressing willingness to inflict pain when following orders.
4) Harlow’s Pit of Despair
During the 1970s, psychologist Harry Harlow was noted for his cruel experiments, including putting baby monkeys in the “pit of despair,” which meant abandoning them in a dark, empty chamber devoid of socialization or stimulation. As one would expect, this would drive just about anyone or anything insane. Public outrage over Harlow’s cruelty was pivotal in the advent of animal rights advocacy.
5) An Elephant on LSD
Unfortunately, Harlow was not the first person to conduct psychological experiments on animals. In 1962, Lincoln Park Zoo director Warren Thomas tried to make a name for himself by injecting Tusko the elephant with a dose of LSD 3,000 times more potent than the normal dose. Seeking to induce “musth,” an aggressiveness and hormone boost that male elephants experience periodically, Thomas ended up killing the elephant almost immediately.
6) Homosexual Aversion Therapy
During the 1960s, homosexuality was anointed a mental illness. With this came voluntary and involuntary attempts to “cure” same-sex attraction. Usually steeped in violence, these methods included aversion therapy, where homosexual images were coupled with electric shocks and injections that would cause vomiting. This Clockwork Orange-like attempt to associate homosexuality with physical pain led to death in at least one patient.
7) Schizophrenic Cold Turkey
Another unnatural experiment, another tragic loss of life. In 1989, the schizophrenic Tony LaMadrid killed himself after jumping from a rooftop. This was six years after he participated in a University of California study that saw schizophrenics go off their medication cold turkey. Over 90% of participants ended up having relapsed mental illness episodes.