Episode 2: The Monster Studies
Back in 1961, a Yale University Psychologist named Stanley Milgram placed an ad in the local paper offering $4 to individuals willing to take part in an hour-long experiment. Over the next two years, hundreds of people took part in the test, which would turn out to be one of the most infamous and controversial psychological experiments in history. Milgram was trying to get to the bottom of what could motivate large numbers of ordinary citizens in Nazi Germany to follow orders so blindly and to perform acts on other people so abhorrent that political theorist Hannah Arendt once described them as “the banality of evil”.
Milgram’s experiment went like this: a pair of volunteers were introduced to one another where they drew straws to see who would be the tester and who would be the test subject. While in the same room would be a rather official looking fellow in a lab coat to monitor the experiment. What the person who got to be the tester didn’t know was this was all theater, and, in fact, it was really he who was being tested. The tester and phony test subject were separated into two rooms where they couldn’t see one another. The doctor in the lab coat would ask the phony test subject a series of questions, while the tester was made to sit at a desk in front of a control board with instructions to administer a series of ever increasing electrical shocks to the person in the other room if they answered incorrectly. In every test session, the phony subject would begin answering questions wrong and pretend to be in increasing pain every time the person flipped the switch. If the person in control objected or tried to quit, the man in the lab coat would calmly order them to keep going. In many cases, the person in control would get all the way to the top level of 450 volts, and in those instances, the person in the other room would begin complaining about his heart condition and soon fall eerily silent.
By the time Milgram concluded the experiment, roughly 65 percent of the test subjects had cranked the juice up all the way. Although some reporters and other psychologists who have looked into these results think that number may be high, since some of the participants claim to have known all along it was a setup. Several of the participants who didn’t catch on to the trick though did panic and beg to be allowed to stop. In three instances, the participants were so distraught they suffered uncontrollable seizures. In the end, it’s difficult to say what the ultimate result was of Dr. Milgram’s experiment. Maybe it shows that we all have an inherent dark side, and a secret desire to follow people in authority blindly. Or maybe it shows a side of science we may not care to examine, one where scientists set aside their sense of morality and their humanity and instead end up inflicting terrible, sometimes long-lasting harm on their subjects, no matter the cost.
I’m Nate Hale, reporting to you from inside my personal Skinner Box, and this is the Conspirators.
Wendell Johnson was a tall, gangly Iowa farm boy when he arrived at the University of Iowa in 1926 to study English. He was bright and funny, having been both his high school class president and class Valedictorian, but he also had a problem. You see, Wendell stuttered. A lot.
At the time, the University of Iowa had the most famous stuttering research program in the world, and Johnson soon switched majors to study psychology in hopes of becoming a speech therapist to help others like him. Many of his fellow graduate students were fellow stutterers, and they’d often use each other as guinea pigs. They ran each other through a battery of blood and reflex tests, administered electro-shock therapy to one another and even were known to shoot guns off near their ears to see if they could startle the stutter out of them. While many of his peers believed the stutter was centered in a physical problem in the human brain, Johnson believed that it was actually learned behavior from childhood, citing his own pattern of development as evidence. Johnson spoke fine until he was five or six. But when a teacher suggested to his parents that he was developing a stutter, the idea caught fire in Johnson’s mind and he began to worry about the way he was speaking so much, his speech patterns became increasingly hesitant, and his stutter grew exponentially.
In 1938, Johnson had an idea for a study: was it possible to take normally speaking children and and actually make them develop a stutter by convincing them they were speaking incorrectly? He enlisted the aid of 22-year-old graduate student Mary Tudor and the two of them went to the Soldiers and Sailors Orphans’ Home where they conducted this study on the children living there. What the two of them did to those children would come to be known forever after as the Monster Study.
The Soldiers and Sailors Orphans’ Home was originally founded as a place for children left parentless by soldiers killed in the Civil War. By 1939, the Great Depression was at its peak, and the home housed more than 600 children, including many whose parents were still alive, but were so poor they could not care for them on their own. It was a dark and forlorn place, made up of individual cottages where the children lived and rose at the crack of dawn, and where they spent their day in a regimented existence that wouldn’t be out of place in a military school.
A group of 22 children, ranging in age from five to fifteen, were selected, half of whom received positive speech therapy from Mary Tudor, offering them encouragement and praising them for their speech, while the other half received just the opposite. To them, Mary would interrupt them repeatedly during therapy, insulting and belittling them at every turn. 5-year-old Norma Jean Pugh spoke normally before her first session, but was so overcome with anxiety by her second session she hardly spoke at all. 11-year-old Clarence Fifer began stuttering constantly, stopping to correct himself every time he opened his mouth. In all, many of the children developed some sort of speech impediment and other social problems, and a few of those carried the problem with them throughout the rest of their lives.
By the time World War II broke out, and word of Nazi experimentation on human beings began to filter back to the states, Wendell Johnson decided not to publish the results of his experiment for fear that if it became public that he had experimented on orphan children it would tarnish his reputation. The only record that the test ever took place was that of Mary Tudor’s dissertation on the experiment.
Did the Monster Study live up to its name? Perhaps. I think we can all agree that experimenting on children is beyond horrific, although Wendell Johnson really did have the best intentions at heart in trying to get to the bottom of why some people stutter. But as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and in the case of the Monster Study, the test ultimately turned out to be a complete failure, since in the majority of cases the children’s speech eventually returned to normal.
Being wrong is part of the scientific method. But sometimes a test can go so horribly wrong that even the researchers involved realize it was something they never should have attempted in the first place.
In the summer of 1971, Professor Phil Zombardo of Stanfotd University conducted an experiment to see how individuals could adapt to being forced into a powerless situation. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks. It ended after only six days. A total of twenty-one students were chosen and divided into two groups: 11 “guards” and 10 “prisoners”. The guards were sub-divided into three groups to work a series of daily eight hour shifts, and each were outfitted with a uniform and a pair of mirrored sunglasses.
Each of the prisoners were picked up at their homes, charged, handcuffed and warned of their legal rights, then carted off to a makeshift prison in the basement of the campus psychology building. Each prisoner was given a smock with a number, and a lock and chain to be worn around one of their ankles. A nylon stocking was pulled over their heads to simulate the effect of having their heads shaved.
Dr. Zimbardo and his staff encouraged the guards to be as strict and cruel as they wanted to be. There was only one rule: no physical abuse. The guards were instructed to encourage a sense of powerlessness and frustration in the prisoners by ordering them to perform a series of mindless and repetitive tasks each day.
For the first day, nothing much happened. Dr. Zimbardo was dismayed because the prison guards didn’t seem very much into the role play. Eventually he decided to spice things up by playing the part of a cruel prison guard himself, hoping the other guards would follow his example.
That seems to be the spark that lit the fuse. By day two, things escalated quickly. The student guards began torturing the prisoners, and they quickly tossed aside all rules against physical abuse. They sprayed prisoners with fire extinguishers, deprived them of sleep and forced them to do pushups while stepping on their backs. They built their own solitary confinement cell out of a janitor’s closet and forced inmates inside, stripping them naked and putting bags over their heads beforehand. Some of the prisoners were so traumatized by the abuse they were removed from the study by day five.
One of the most abusive guards would later remark with amazement at how much leeway he was being given. As he continued pushing things further and further, he kept expecting someone to step in and tell him to stop, only no one did. Not even Professor Zimbardo, who himself claimed he had gotten too much into the act and “gone native”. By day three the professor was sleeping in his office and mentally separated himself from the fact that he was the person in charge and should probably do something to stop what was going on.
The spell broke when a former graduate student and current girlfriend of Professor Zimbardo stopped by to see how things were going. She was horrified by what she saw. Professor Zimbardo was shocked and ashamed by her reaction, and he called a premature end to the study by day six. The American Psychological Association later conducted their own investigation into the conduct at Stanford and determined that no ethical standards had been violated during the experiment. Although this investigation, along with previous case studies such as the Milgram experiment and the story that follows would later push them to create new ethical standards for human experimentation.
One of the most infamous experiments that ever came out of Harvard University was conducted in 1959 by Professor Henry Murray, part of the university’s Department of Social Relations. Murray was an interesting individual, to put it mildly, with a rather unique worldview. Raised in a wealthy, blue-blood household, Murray grew up with a strict sense of right and wrong and he saw society as it entered into the Second World War as engaged in a real battle between the forces of good and evil. With the advent of the nuclear bomb, he feared for the fate of the planet and he actively advocated for a single world government as the cure to all of society’s ills.
He was a devoted scientist as well as a humanist, and he applied his considerable skills in psychological manipulation during World War II by joining the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. At the OSS, Murray was the chief psychologist who, according to none other than legendary psychologist and proponent of psychedelic drugs Timothy Leary was “the wizard of personality assessment” and personally “monitored military experimentation on brainwashing and sodium amytal interrogation.”
Some people believe that after the war, as Murray settled into his new career with Harvard, he carried on his work, only this time with students.
In a study that Murray began in 1959, the professor encouraged the 22 student volunteers he selected to develop and articulate their own personal philosophy in life. Then each undergraduate student was pitted against someone they thought was a fellow psychology student in order to debate that philosophy. But this wasn’t any friendly debate in the school auditorium. No, the test subjects were strapped into chairs and wired up with electrodes. They faced a one-way mirror with hot lights glaring down on them and, as it turns out, the person on the opposite side of that mirror wasn’t a fellow psychology student at all, but a particularly aggressive law student who had been instructed to say whatever he needed to in order to tear their arguments to shreds.
Afterwards, the students had to watch videos of their session over and over. Many students were known to leave the test chambers sobbing on a regular basis. Murray himself called them, “Vehement, sweeping and personally abusive attacks.” And did I mention that this harsh interrogation went on like this for THREE YEARS?
The identities of many of the students who participated in Murray’s study are still unknown. Subjects were assigned code names and many remain anonymous to this day. One student who came by the code name of “Lawful” we do know something about. He was a genius for one thing, a child prodigy with a gift for mathematics who finished high school at age 15, and enrolled in Harvard shortly thereafter. Reports say that the student known as Lawful took the psychological abuse particularly badly. He was, after all, younger and more impressionable than his peers. It’s difficult to say what lasting effects the test had on him. But being younger and smarter than many of the students around him was isolating. Add on the stresses of being belittled day after day and it does help paint a picture of a particularly troubled young man.
After earning his undergraduate degree at Harvard, the young man went on to earn his PhD in mathematics from the University of Michigan. At the age of 25, he took a job as an assistant professor at the University of California, only to resign two years later. He mostly dropped out the public eye after that, moving to live an isolated existence in a cabin he built himself just outside Lincoln, Montana where he dedicated himself to a new occupation.
Over the next two decades the man who had once been known as Lawful built and mailed out a series of increasingly sophisticated explosive devices to different locations around the country, killing three people and injuring 23 more. If you haven’t guessed by now, Lawful’s real name was Ted Kasczynski, only he came to be better known as the Unabomber.
It’s impossible to say how much, if any, of a role Murray’s experiment played in creating the Unabomber. Murray led a respected career long after, and is still well-regarded among psychologists today. At least to my mind, what he did to his subjects was cruel, but it’s impossible to draw a direct correlation between Murray’s experiment, and the death and destruction Kaczynski would reap later in life. There is another human experiment though, one that an opportunistic doctor performed on an innocent child, managing to tear apart the lives of the child’s entire family in the process.
David Reimer and his twin brother were born in Winnipeg in 1965. When he was 8 months old his parents took him to doctor for a routine circumcision. But the doctor made a grave error by using an electrocautery needle instead of a scalpel to remove the foreskin, and accidentally burned off David’s entire penis. David’s parents were referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where they met Dr. John Money, a leading expert in gender identity. Dr. Money took one look at the family and their unfortunate circumstances and saw this as the opportunity of a lifetime for himself to finally prove that nature, not nurture determined gender identity and sexual orientation.
Doctor Money recommended that David undergo sex reassignment surgery, seeing David’s twin Brian as the perfect control group for his experiment, a genetically identical child raised as a boy. The surgery would be the first of its kind ever performed on a developmentally normal child.
According to Money’s published reports throughout the 1970s, the experiment was a success and the twins were happy in their assigned gender roles. The experiment made Dr. Money famous. Time magazine featured him in an article and entire chapters were devoted to him in textbooks.
The truth was though that things weren’t going well at all in the Reimer house. David—now Brenda—rebelled against the female identity assigned to her. She tore up her dresses and preferred to play with her brother’s toy cars and guns over the dolls that her parents gave her. She was teased constantly by other children for her masculine tendencies. She complained to her parents and teachers that she felt like she was a boy. Dr. Money swore Brenda’s parents to secrecy, and insisted that they keep her in the dark about what had been done to her. Dr. Money told them that it was only a phase and eventually Brenda would come to accept her gender.
The guilt tore at Brenda’s parents. Her mother attempted suicide, while her father became a raging alcoholic. Brenda’s brother Brian felt so neglected he fell into clinical depression, descending into drug use and petty crime. In 2002, Brian would die of an overdose of antidepressants.
At the age of 14, another psychiatrist convinced Brenda’s parents to come clean. She became David again, spending years going through another round of painful and difficult sex reassignment surgery to make her male once more. This included a double mastectomy to remove the breasts that estrogen therapy had grown, and creating a prosthetic penis and testicles to replace the ones David lost as an infant.
David tried to lead a normal life, but he spent his adulthood haunted by his mutilation and by Dr. Money’s experiment. David married a woman and for 14 years tried to make things work between them, but the death of his twin, financial troubles, and a series of dead-end jobs left him spiraling into a deep depression. Eventually, when David was 38 years old, he and his wife decided to separate. Two days later, David’s wife received a call from the police telling her that David had committed suicide. Although Doctor Money had long since stopped publishing about David, he insisted for the rest of his life that David’s sex reassignment had been a smashing success.
The Conspirators was written and produced by me, Nate Hale, an entirely fictional identity.
You can find show notes, transcripts and other episodes by visiting theconspiratorspodcast.com. Thanks for listening.
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