Comparison of Unethical Psychology Experiments

The purpose of this paper is to reflect on the merits and ethical dilemmas that present themselves in three classic psychology experiments that were conducted prior to the establishment of the Institutional Review Boards. The three experiments I will reflect on are Wendell Johnson’s The Monster Study, John Money’s David Reimer Experiment and Martin Seligman’s Learned Helplessness Experiment. For each experiment I will provide a brief overview of the study, explaining the intent of the experiment along with the findings. I will follow this with a discussion on what each experiment contributed to my understanding of human behavior and the influence it had on psychology today. I will then identify ethical issues that exist in each experiment and assess whether the experiment would be accepted by todays ethical standards. Finally, I will explain changes that would be necessary to ensure the study would meet professional standards today.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Find out more

The Monster Study was an experiment that was conducted on a group of children at an orphanage in Davenport, Iowa in 1939. Dr. Wendell Johnson, a professor and speech pathologist at the Stuttering Research Program at the University of Iowa, recruited Mary Tudor, a graduate student, to conduct the experiment with the intent examining the underlying cause of stuttering (Ambrose & Yari, 2002). The intent of the study was to prove that stuttering was not an intrinsic trait but rather a condition that was caused by a child’s environment. Johnson and Tudor hypothesized that telling a child his or her speech was not normal could induce stuttering (Johnson, 1938). The researchers found that the hypothesis was supported as the children who initially had no stuttering problems, now had stuttering problems, and those who had stuttering problems, were worse (Dyer, 2011).

This study contributes to my understanding of human behavior by showing how individuals can be heavily influenced by the power of suggestion and that human behavior can be heavily influenced by the environment. This experiment impacted psychology today by not only bringing the issue of informed consent to the forefront, but also the need to establish and enforce ethical standards that focused on keeping research subjects safe from harm.

Three ethical issues that present themselves in this study are related to Principle A: Beneficence and Non-maleficence. “Psychologists attempt to do everything they can to benefit the welfare of the client and avoid the most harm, also in regard to them when making decisions.” (APA, 2010) Johnson’s experiment clearly violated this principle, he and Tudor did cause harm to the children in the study, in some cases, impairing them for life. The overall the welfare of the children was clearly not taken into consideration. Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility. “Psychologists explain their obligations and rules as a professional and take responsibility for their actions. If more knowledge is needed on an issue, they seek advice from other professionals. They are concerned about the professional conduct of their colleagues.” (APA, 2010) Wendell & Tudor were not responsible in explaining obligations and rules related to the study, in fact, none of the children knew they were part of a study and most of the staff at the orphanage were not aware that the study was being conducted (Ambrose & Yari, 2002). Principle D: Justice. “Psychologists ensure all clients can benefit from psychological research and are treated just and fair. They take care in ensuring that their judgements do not lead to bad practice.” (APA, 2010) The subjects in this study did not benefit from this experiment, the researchers caused harm to the children and there was no benefit for the children who participated in the study.

Changes that would be required if this study were to be conducted today would include the researchers obtaining consent to conduct the study on the children along with informing the children and their guardians of the intent of the study and any potential risks involved.

David Reimer was born as Bruce Reimer in 1965. At age 8 months, Bruce and his twin brother went in for a routine circumcision. During Bruce’s procedure his penis was accidently destroyed. Distraught from this event, his parents were referred to Dr. John Money, a medical psychologist for support. After several meetings with the parents, Dr. Money made a recommendation that they consider a gender reassignment surgery for their son, convincing them that this was the best option for Bruce to live a normal life. Bruce’s parents agreed to this believing the doctor’s suggestion was the best option. However, Mr. & Mrs. Reimer were not aware that Dr. Money’s hidden agenda (Diamond & Sigmundson, 1997) was to advance his theory that any boy could be raised as a girl (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972) proving that nurture was more important than nature when it came to determining gender. As a result Bruce underwent gender reassignment surgery and was raised as Brenda, a girl. By age 7 Brenda began to act in a more masculine way and by age 13 Brenda began rejecting her feminine roles (Fausto-Sterling, 2000), acting and looking more like a boy. Brenda’s parents eventually told her the truth about what happened and Brenda decided she wanted to be a boy again. She went on to change her name to David and later had surgery to reconstruct a penis and live as a man (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). At age 38 David committed suicide, it is believed that he ended is life because of the impact that Money’s experiment had on his life (Kipnis & Diamond, 1998). Despite the suggested negative outcome, Dr. Money continued to report his research study to be a success, arguing that gender was determined by a child’s environment (Money & Ehrhardt 1972). Money also neglected to report that his observations of Brenda were only through age 7, which was prior to her rejecting her femininity, and he failed to document and report the conflicts and negative outcomes even after it were clear that the experiment was a failure (Fausto-Sterling, 2000).

This study contributed to my understanding of human behavior by showing that humans behave in ways that are influenced both genetically and environmentally. They are both intertwined in a way that can be difficult to separate at times, but in this study it was made clear that Bruce, despite having the tragic accident of having his penis removed, was male. I believe this study influenced psychology today by advancing our understanding of gender and sex. Even though Money did not report his findings accurately, the information that was gleaned was valuable in offering insight and understanding of gender identity.

Three ethical issues that are present in this study include a violation of Principle A: Beneficence and Non-maleficence. “Psychologists attempt to do everything they can to benefit the welfare of the client and avoid the most harm, also in regard to them when making decisions.” (APA, 2010) Clearly, Dr. Money was negligent in ensuring the welfare of the client. His experiment caused irreparable psychological harm to Bruce, his parents and brother. Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility. “Psychologists explain their obligations and rules as a professional and take responsibility for their actions.” (APA, 2010) Dr. Money did not obtain informed consent from Bruce’s parents and he neglected to make them aware that their son was part of a research experiment. Likewise, he failed to report on the outcome of the study beyond age 7, when Brenda started to act more masculine. Even after his study’s accuracy was challenged Money refused to acknowledge that his research was inaccurate. (Kipnis & Diamond, 1998) Finally, this study violated Principle D: Justice. “Psychologists ensure all clients can benefit from psychological research and are treated just and fair. They take care in ensuring that their judgements don’t lead to bad practice.” (APA, 2010) Dr. Money’s research was a gross violation of this principle; his interest lied entirely in his desire to prove his theory and his poor judgement in the manner he went about implementing this study clearly led to bad practice.

One change that would be required if this study were to be conducted today would be the parents giving informed consent for their minor child. Money did not inform the parents that Bruce was part of his research study and he did not outline the potential risks that were involved leaving them unaware of the potential damage that could result.

Find out how can help you!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

In the 1965, Martin Seligman and some of his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania conducted an experiment with the intention of expanding their knowledge on learned helplessness and depression. The team used dogs that were put into a special cage that was divided in two by a low fence as part of their experiment. The floor of each half of the box was lined with a pad that could deliver a painful electric shock to the dog. For the first part of the study Seligman (1967) put a dog on one side of the box and delivered an electrical shock to the dog. When the electrical pad on that side of the box was turned on, the dog jumped around until it jumped over the fence to the other side escaping the shock. When Seligman (1967) switched the shock to that side of the box, the dog again jumped around until it jumped over the fence. The dog eventually learned to expect the shock and would jump over the fence more quickly after the shock was turned on. The second part of the experiment involved strapping a different set of dogs into a harness that gave them inescapable shocks at random intervals over a course of time (Seligman & Maier, 1967). The next day, these dogs were then tested in the special cage to see how they would react to the shock. Much like the first set of dogs, they jumped around frantically when they initially felt the shock, however, after a few seconds they would stop moving and lie down on in the cage and begin to whine. What Seligman (1967) concluded is that the dogs in the harness had learned that there was no way for them to escape the shocks making them feel helpless to avoid getting shocked. Seligman (1967) and his colleagues called this behavior learned helplessness. They concluded that the dogs had learned that the shock was inevitable and that there was nothing they could do to prevent it from happening.

This experiment enhances my understanding of human behavior by giving some insight into the impact that negative experiences can have on a person’s ability to progress and make changes in their life. Being exposed to repeated negative stimuli impacts an individual’s ability to help themselves leave a negative life situation. I believe this study impacted psychology today by calling into question the ethical treatment of animals in research experiments; it is studies like these that moved the field to examine the humane treatment of animals in psychological research.

It was because of Seligman’s 1965 study and other studies similar to this, that the APA developed special Ethical Standards that addressed the use of animals in research. To address this, the APA developed section 8.09 Humane Care and Use of Animals in Research subsections in the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct of the APA (APA, 2010). Based on today’s standards Seligman’s research would have been in violation of sections (a), (b) & (d) in the Ethical Standards Section. The Ethical Standards section 8.09 (a) states that “psychologists acquire, care for, use and dispose of animals in compliance with federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and with professional standards.” (APA, 2010) Seligman would not have been in compliance with this standard due to current laws that would have protected the dogs from being exposed to painful stimuli that they were unable to escape. Seligman would have also been in violation of 8.09 (b) “Psychologists trained in research methods and experienced in the care of laboratory animals supervise all procedures involving animals and are responsible for ensuring appropriate consideration of their comfort, health, and humane treatment.” (APA, 2010) Seligman violated this principle by not ensuring consideration for the comfort to the dogs in the study. He subjected the dogs to painful stimuli that they were unable to escape, causing discomfort and inhumane treatment. Finally, Seligman violated 8.09 (d) which states “Psychologists make reasonable efforts to minimize the discomfort, infection, illness and pain of animal subjects.” Seligman violated this standard by repeatedly subjecting the dogs to painful electric shock they could not escape.

One change that would be required for this study to meet today’s ethical standards would include eliminating or at least minimizing the intensity of the electric shock that was used as part of the experiment. It was unclear to me of the intensity of the shock that was used as there were conflicting reports of the severity of the shock that was administered throughout the literature that was reviewed. However; the use of electric shock would likely be not be permitted by today’s standards.

In conclusion, there is clearly a long history of questionable ethics in research practice that prompted the APA to move toward developing ethical guidelines and codes of conduct for psychologists. However; I think it is important that these studies be viewed in the context of their time before we jump to conclusions about intent. Strict regulations did not exist and the research culture was much more laidback than it is today, forcing us to examine whether ethics are relative or absolute. Do we judge the work these researchers did and imply that they intended harm? Or, do we consider the period in which these studies were conducted and recognize that they were working within acceptable standards for the time. Either way, the history of research practices led to the development of guidelines of ethical practices that ultimately provided answers to the concerns that were called into question and bringing us to where we are today.


  • Ambrose, N., & Yairi, E. (2002). The Tudor Study: Data and Ethics. Journal of Speech, Language, Pathology, 11, 190-203.
  • Bayard, J. (1987). The unethical treatment of animals and the APA. The Humanistic Psychologist, 15(3), 229-231. Doi: 10.1080/08873267.1987.9976803
  • Diamond, M. & Sigmundson, H. K. (1997) Sex reassignment at birth: a long-term review and clinical implications, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 152, 298 – 304.
  • Dyer, J. (2011). Ethic and orphans: the monster study. Mercury News. Retrieved August 1, 2018.
  • Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). The five sexes revisited. The Sciences, 40(4), 18-23. //
  • Federal Register. (1979). Protection of human subjects: Belmont Report-ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research. U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 44(76), 23192-23197.
  • Johnson, W. (1934). Stuttering in the preschool child. Child Welfare Pamphlets No. 37, University of Iowa: Iowa City.
  • Johnson, W. (1938). The role of evaluation in stuttering behavior. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 3, 85–89.
  • Kipnis, K. & Diamond, M. (1998) Pediatric Ethics and the Surgical Assignment of Sex, The Journal of Clinical Ethics, Vol 9(4) 398-410
  • Money, J. & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972) Man and woman, boy and girl: Differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity.
  • Revision of Ethical Standard 304 of the ‘Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct’ (2002, as amended 2010). (2016). American Psychologist71(9), 900. doi:10.1037/amp0000102
  • Seligman, M. & Maier, S. (1967). Failure to escape shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1).


Most Used Categories

EssayHub’s Community of Professional Tutors & Editors
Tutoring Service, EssayHub
Professional Essay Writers for Hire
Essay Writing Service, EssayPro
Professional Custom
Professional Custom Essay Writing Services
In need of qualified essay help online or professional assistance with your research paper?
Browsing the web for a reliable custom writing service to give you a hand with college assignment?
Out of time and require quick and moreover effective support with your term paper or dissertation?