10 More Behavioral Experiments That Went Terribly Wrong



Human behavior has fascinated science for a long time, and researchers have conducted many studies to figure out the intricacies of the ways we conduct ourselves. Many of these experiments have been well-organized, moral and informative. However, as we have told you before, a few have been pretty much anything but that. For one reason or another, the following 10 behavioral experiments have taken strange, unexpected, and often terrible turns.

10. The Raft Experiment

The 1973 Raft Experiment was meant to be an ambitious scientific project about aggressive human behavior in a contained, ruthless environment, in an effort to “cure” violence from the world. The fact that the world’s media dubbed the project “the sex raft” tells roughly how well this went.

The study was a brainchild of Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genoves, who put together five men and six women, stuck them on a well-equipped raft call Acali, and made them sail across the Atlantic. Genoves, who was onboard the raft as the leader of the expedition and was aiming to study violence to the point where he even dubbed the experiment the Peace Project, intended the Acali to be a floating laboratory that would demonstrate how a group of random people would react to such a situation. Instead, the group soon grew tired at his constant attempts to manipulate the study by artificially creating couples, instigating sexual situations and, oh, right, timing his experiment so that the raft had to sail during hurricane season. It didn’t help that Genoves had specifically designed the raft to provoke as much conflict as possible, so there was no personal space whatsoever. In fact, the raft was less of a “sex raft” and more of a “can’t use the bathroom in peace because there’s no door” raft.

Ultimately, the raft featured very little sex and violence, but there was a mutiny. The test subjects overthrew the hated Genoves (and some of them briefly contemplated just dropping him in the ocean), who retreated below deck and became depressed over his lack of success and the media’s sensational treatment of his precious project. That’s when he realized that he, the researcher, was ultimately the only person who had embraced the dark side he wanted to study, and wrote: “Only one has shown any kind of aggression and that is me, a man trying to control everyone else, including himself.”

9. Stanford Prison Experiment

If you clicked this article’s headline, chances are the subject interests you enough that you already know something about the Stanford Prison Experiment. The legendary 1971 experiment in a fake prison under Stanford University made a group of students act as guards and another as prisoners, and things went awry in a hurry. The guards started mistreating their prisoners, which seemed to indicate that even perfectly normal people will abuse power over others if given the chance, while induced powerlessness will drive people to submission and might even cost them their sanity. It’s an incredibly influential, almost legendary behavioral experiment that has been a staple of psychology books for decades. There’s just one problem: It’s also pretty much a fraud.

Yes, the most famous behavioral experiment gone wrong is even more wrong than you’d assume, because its methodology and results were deeply flawed at best. Interviews with participants and recently unveiled recordings of the psychology professor in charge of the experiment, Phillip Zimbardo, reveal that the guards were specifically coached to act cruelly. The prisoners’ reactions were hardly genuine, either. The most famous moment of the experiment was when one of the prisoners descended into apparent fit of madness, screaming: “I’m burning up inside!” In reality, the student faked his breakdown because he had a grad school exam coming up and wanted to get out of the experiment early in order to study. Students have even commented that they treated the situation as a sort of improv exercise, and were just acting out the roles the way they thought the researchers wanted.

8. Asch conformity experiment

The Asch conformity experiment studied the power of peer pressure, and in a way, it didn’t go quite as wrong as some of the other studies on this list. However, its results definitely tell that humanity has gone wrong when it comes to letting obnoxious people influence us. In 1951, Solomon Asch made 50 subjects participate in a group “vision test” where the members of the group had to determine which of the comparison lines A, B and C was the same length as the target line.

However, the study had a secret purpose: Only one group member was a subject for the study. The others were stooges who purposefully stated their answers before the real participant. Depressingly, it soon turned out that even when the fake participants gave an obviously wrong answer, the real one tended to go with the majority despite the fact that he clearly understood it wasn’t the right move. In later interviews, the participants said that they knew the answer they gave was wrong, but they didn’t want to risk ridicule from the others by disagreeing with the majority. Interestingly, some also believed that the rest of the group genuinely knew better, and followed their lead.

7. The Bobo Doll experiment

Whenever one moral panic or another brings up the ages-old question of video games and TV shows turning kids to violence, the Bobo Doll experiment is at least partially to blame. The 1961 study by Albert Bandura placed young children in three different rooms. The first room was filled with toys, but the kids were told that the toys in one corner were just for adults. In that corner, an adult either sat silently and played with the corner toys, or aggressively hit a Bobo doll with a toy hammer and muttered things like “throw him up in the air” and “punch him.” Things got worse in the second room, also filled with toys. There, another adult told the kids that they could play with everything, but after two minutes, told them to stop because the toys were for other children. Finally, a third room featured more toys, including a prominently placed Bobo doll. The study’s big find was that the children who had witnessed an adult attacking the doll were far more likely to attack it themselves.

According to the numerous critics of this influential study, the second room is where it all goes wrong. By deliberately frustrating the kids in that room, the adults made it far more likely for them to lash out at a toy that had been specifically forbidden from them before. There are also other criticisms, such as ethical issues (they were deliberately creeping out children, after all), the artificial setup of the test (children rarely interact with complete strangers who start giving them orders about playtime), and the fact that the snapshot nature of the study makes it impossible to determine whether the effects were exclusive to the study’s particular conditions, or whether there’s a long-term effect. All in all, common sense dictates that it’s probably best to take any study that features grown men sitting in a corner while attacking a doll and muttering creepy things to children with a pinch of salt.   

6. The Kitty Genovese murder

This one went so wrong that it didn’t even start out as a behavioral experiment. Instead, it became one by the sheer weight of its wrongness.

In 1964, a woman called Kitty Genovese was attacked and murdered outside her apartment in New York. She was stabbed 14 times over 30 minutes, but despite her repeated pleas for help, no one came to her aid … despite the fact that there had been 38 bystanders. The murderer was eventually arrested, but the Genovese case and the apparent heartlessness of the witnesses fascinated both public and psychologists, and it became a cornerstone in the research of the “bystander effect” (a form of social paralysis that prevents people from reacting if there’s a crowd and some other people seem more likely to react or more qualified to handle the situation).

Apart from the inherent wrongness of the case itself, there is just one problem: A lot of the case’s most famous aspects are pure poppycock. It’s certain that the attack occurred, and the killer, Winston Moseley, was a pretty deranged guy — according to the New York Times, we’re talking about a necrophiliac serial killer. However, a lot of the details came from an intensive report by the very same New York Times, which was extremely inaccurate and exaggerated a number of details.

While it’s true that some neighbors ignored Genovese’s cries for help, there is no evidence that there were 38 witnesses who were fully aware of what was going on and actively decided to not get involved. Not a single person saw the attack in its entirety. Just a few managed to glimpse even parts of it, let alone recognized Genovese’s screams as cries for help. Most just assumed they had passingly heard a fight between lovers or drunks. Besides, two people did call the police (though it was too late to save Genovese), and a 70-year-old lady who recognized the trouble for what it was even went out and cradled the dying woman in her arms until help arrived. All in all, that seems like a pretty helpful neighborhood, as opposed to the bunch of uncaring monsters research and media later made them out to be.

5. The triplet separation experiment

In 1980, a young man named Bobby Shafran started college, and was surprised when everyone greeted him like he’d been around for ages. He found it strange, but eventually, someone asked him if he was adopted, and when it turned out that he was, he discovered he was being confused with an identical stranger: Eddy Galland, his separated-at-birth twin brother. The amazing story made it into the news, and soon, a third identical man named David Kellman contacted them.

The reunion of the separated triplets was first a joyful event, but soon turned grim as it became apparent just why they’d been separated: A prominent adoption agency had done it just so psychologists could stealthily observe them and see how similar or different they turned out, in a twisted “nature vs. nurture” experiment. Unbeknownst to each other, doctors had been visiting each throughout their childhood and monitoring their development, which they didn’t think to question because, hey, if you grow up like that, who’s to say it’s not normal? The “hurt, confusion and anger” caused by this discovery messed up the triplets pretty badly. After spending a while as D-list celebrities and going through various shenanigans and business ventures, one of the brothers committed suicide and the others drifted apart.

So, what did the researchers learn from this brutal separation of siblings? We don’t know, but it probably wasn’t anything they’re happy to reveal to the world. The results of the study are currently locked in the archives of Yale University, and won’t be released until 2066. Presumably, everyone involved is waiting for every possible statute of limitations to expire.

4. Project Artichoke

As an intelligence agency, the CIA is particularly interested in one aspect of human behavior: How to get the information they need out of people. As such, they have been known to dabble with unethical projects that research interrogation techniques, such as Project Artichoke.

Project Artichoke’s main claim to infamy is that it eventually morphed into the infamous Project MKUltra, but it was plenty terrifying on its own. The project was overseen by Dr. Donald O. Hebb, who recruited volunteers from his own medical students, but conveniently forgot to mention that they would be essentially tortured. The subjects were subjected to perceptual isolation, awfully dull audio materials, attitude changes from researchers, involuntary impairment of intellectual functions (read: drugs) and assorted hallucinations that arose from sensory deprivation. Hebb was completely unprepared for those, by the way: He was utterly surprised when his sensory deprivation techniques started giving subjects vivid, mescaline-style hallucinations where people were seeing and even feeling things that weren’t there. One subject even felt that his head was disconnected from his body.

Another thing the good Doctor was entirely unprepared for: The huge harmful psychological effects his methods had on his subjects who, again, were mostly his own medical students. Cue multiple filed complaints and congressional hearings.

3. The Aversion Project

South Africa wasn’t the best place to be during Apartheid. Apart from the infamous racial discrimination, the country — and especially its military — was also very anti-gay. In 1969, the South African military started what is now known as the Aversion Project, which used electroshocks and castrations to “reorientate” the homosexuals within its rank.

The commander of the project was colonel and psychiarist Aubrey Levin, who recommended unit commanders and chaplains to refer all “deviants” they discovered to him. Levin’s people strapped electrodes to the terrified gay soldiers, showed them pornographic materials of the same sex and encouraged them to fantasize. When they did, ZAP! They were given an electric shock. The treatment was then repeated with increasingly strong shocks, until the patient could take no more. At that point of extreme duress, the researchers started ordering the men to think of “their girlfriend,” and generally trying to turn their thoughts “straight.” Drug users (mostly people caught smoking marihuana) and people who just didn’t want to be in the military were also subjected to a similar treatment, and sometimes, the process was reinforced with drugs. Former drug addicts who were caught using were sent to a hard labor farm, while some homosexuals were even more unlucky: They were outright chemically castrated.

Of course it wasn’t successful. One gay subject says that the process was awful, but did absolutely nothing to alter his orientation. Still, while the whole thing amounted to little more that torture, Dr. Levin’s career wasn’t impacted in the least. When apartheid started crumbling down, he merely emigrated to Canada, where he crafted a successful career as a court psychiatrist. The fact that he was later arrested for sex crimes is probably just a coincidence.

2. Learned Helplessness experiment

Just in case you feel like skipping this one, we’ll just get the worst part of it right out of the way: This experiment involved giving electric shocks to poor doggies. We know. It’s awful. We’re sorry.

The Learned Helplessness experiment was a 1965-67 University of Pennsylvania experiment about animal association. It took a creepy twist when researchers placed dogs in a Pavlovian situation where they were taught to expect a slight electric shock when a signal was given. Surprisingly, though, the dogs who had been taught this didn’t react in a way they should have, which was to immediately leap out of the box where the shock would be given. The dogs who hadn’t been taught that there’d be a shock had no trouble escaping, but the ones who knew there’d be one just figured out that there was nothing they could do about it and just went lying down on the shock-y floor in a stunning display of “eh, what can you do” attitude. This surprising discovery lead to a new and depressing concept called “learned helplessness,” where a human or animal doesn’t get out of a negative situation they could easily avoid, because the past has taught them that it’s likely they can’t do anything about it.

1. CIA’s Project QKHILLTOP

And then there is Project QKHILLTOP, which was never even intended to go right in any moral sense of the word. This 1954 CIA project was overseen by Harold G. Wolff, whose behavior tests used old Chinese brainwashing techniques in an attempt to enter the human mind and alter it to the Agency’s benefit (think “Manchurian Candidate”-type assassins, etc.). Attempts to erase the minds of test subjects included constant psychological (and sometimes physical) attacks that made the subject question one’s self, feel guilty and agree that he or she was bad, or at least “not good”. By the time the subject started truly breaking down and asking questions like “Am I really me?”, “Who am I?” and “Where am I?”, the researchers started building a new belief system and personality from the ground up, essentially trying to build a completely new person.

The torture required to break down the subject’s personality  could take months, and some subjects were occasionally given various drugs to see how this would affect the development. Unsurprisingly, this cruel experiment didn’t exactly result in a bunch of brand new, CIA-programmed people. Instead, the poor subjects remained broken: They committed suicide, lost parts of their memory or suffered from hallucinations.

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