ethical guidelines

“The Monster Study”

“The Monster Study,” is a basic research experiment that was initiated by Speech Pathologist Wendell Johnson in 1939. Although it is an old experiment, it reflects on the importance of ethical guidelines, and the effects of breaking them on the participant’s social perception and self-esteem. 

A group of orphans were randomly selected, and the main aim of the experiment was to prove that stuttering is not a biological phenomenon. The children were deceived about the purpose of the experiment and the cover story that they were told was that they were going to receive speech therapy. They were divided into two experimental groups and two control groups, where the independent variable was the way the children were treated; they were either de-motivated and told that they had a stuttering problem or encouraged to improve their speech. Consequently, the dependent variable was the reaction of the children to the experimenter’s comments. For six months the children in two groups were told that their speech was fine, while those in the other groups were repeatedly informed that their speech was abnormal and that they were beginning to stutter. It was found that the children in the second group actually developed speech problems and were emotionally traumatized by the experiment. Some kept their hands over their mouths when asked to speak while others refused to speak all together. Their self-esteem was completely shattered, for they learned to believe the experimenters’ negative comments.

Children from The Monster Study
Children from The Monster Study

Overtime, the experiment showed how stuttering could be induced, and that it was not biological; however, the study had been low on internal validity as there were many confounding variables that were not considered (for example, each orphan’s suggestibility). Moreover, external validity was extremely low, for the randomly selected sample of orphans was not at all representative of a certain population and the results of the study could not be generalized. Most importantly, however, the study broke a major “modern” ethical principle: informed consent; the children had agreed to participate but they were unaware of any possible negative consequences. The experiment was also far from applied research, as it was purely conducted to satisfy Johnson’s curiosity. Additionally, debriefing took place only after the children’s social cognition had been negatively altered: they fell back on school work, and interpreted everything in terms of the insecurities that had been induced.

There have been no replications of The Monster Study, and nowadays, no Institutional Review Board would allow such a study to take place. But who sets these guidelines? Isn’t it possible that what we view as ethical today will be considered unethical thirty years from now? Just like the Monster Study, there are a lot of other experiments with unpredictable negative results, so is it worth risking the psychological well being of people? It is a weird thought that most of the information that psychologists rely on today to help their patients was actually obtained in an unethical manner that harmed others.

A few pictures of other highly unethical Psychological Experiments.

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