Updated: Jul 2, 2019
Ethical practices form a professional lynchpin pounded into the heads of psychology majors by every professor they'll ever have. Not only do the universities and staff staunchly support ethics in experiments and professional services, the association (American Psychological Association) has it codified in their ethical practices guidelines. Want a license to practice psychology? Then you'd better know those ethical guidelines by heart and be ready to support any action you take which might come into conflict with them.
We have to wonder, then, how major American universities of international repute (Stanford, Yale and Johns Hopkins to name three) so blithely permitted their professors to engage in highly unethical research.
One particularly heinous bit of research by Davenport Hooker used aborted fetuses for research on pain and perception. Explain to me how you could cause pain to a living, albeit not viable, aborted fetus and not experience revulsion and disgust if you had any part in it.
The university even set up a laboratory for Hooker right outside the delivery room so he would have easy access to "tissue." Calling a miscarried fetus tissue is tantamount to what soldiers in war do in order to dehumanize the enemy; they nickname them. We've heard the terms Charlie, Wog, Gooks, Krauts, etc. where each one refers to a specific enemy soldier's country of origin.
Don't call a human fetus a fetus but tissue is probably what Hooker and his associates did to make it seem less like something monstrous. But it remains monstrous no matter what you call these poor, unfortunate creatures. Their grieving mothers never knew of the horrors meted out to their lost babies.
Hooker wasn't alone in his questionable, unethical experiments. And we can't say that these practices were limited to the 30s or 40s because Philip Zimbardo was up to his beard in one of the most famous in 1971, a world away from the 40s. His masterpiece, which would win him fame and the presidency of The American Psychological Association (remember their ethical principles?), was The Stanford Prison Experiment.
Until today, Zimbardo (Stanford University) attempts to justify what he did and fails to see the untold psychological wreckage he left behind in those young men's minds and lives. Their neighbors saw them "arrested" and put into police cars and spirited off to "jail." The guards were told to be relentless in their abusive behavior, but Zimbardo never revealed that until much later. He stated it was behavior that reared its ugly head naturally when someone was placed in a position of power. Curious, isn't it, that Zimbardo designed an experiment of this type?
Was Zimbardo alone in looking at how authority allegedly warped the "agentic" state behavior of common civilians into brutal, even potentially deadly behavior toward innocent others? Of course, he was following in the footsteps of Stanley Milgram and his obedience to authority experiment.
Milgram ran ads in Connecticut newspapers (yes, he was a prof at Yale) to recruit local townspeople. Then he used a ruse and a shock board to get them to follow commands to shock these victims to the point of "death." Of course the person they were shocking was an actor who feigned severe pain and pleaded for his life.
Milgram, who's dead now, said he wanted to examine how the Nazis could have gotten the German people to go along with their murderous behavior toward Jews. Were the Nazi generals psychopaths and the Germans merely agents of this criminality? Could ordinary people be made to injure and kill people when ordered to by an authority in a white coat? Women, in the final analysis, were excluded because they wouldn't go as far in the shock panel as the men would. Read about it.
Unethical, too, and participants, when questioned later, admitted to the experiment having brought difficulties into their personal lives. One man indicated his wife told him he was no better than Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi killer executed in Israel. How many others suffered and didn't relate their tales? No one knows and, certainly, Milgram didn't want to upset his own applecart with that exploration.
In the spirit of almost-anything-goes research, we now have the 1980 work of Peter Neubauer (NYU and Yale) where a social service agency, Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, agreed to separate pairs of twins and triplets at birth. The babies were given to separate families and raised without the knowledge that they had siblings separated at birth. One of the triplets, who accidentally discovered each other, committed suicide and a feature film was made about them (Three Identical Strangers).
These are only three examples of how persons in positions of authority abuse their power in educational institutions and get away with it. Yale has refused to release the records of Neubauer's experiment until 2065. I believe a lawsuit would be a good action.
One has to question where The American Psychological Association and their ethical principles were in all of this. How did Zimbardo, after his egregious actions, become president of that organization? The prison experiment wasn't his only questionable work, as I recall. Another experiment had been on hypnosis. Zimbardo built his fame on this work and enjoyed packed classrooms as a result. You would think he was a clinical psychologist, but he is a social psychologist, untrained to deal with human emotions and his trifling with them. Don't the APA ethical principals deal with working within one's area of expertise? Of course they do, but Zimbardo disregarded this point.
How does a university's institutional review board pass these experiments? They are charged with delving into every aspect to insure that ethical standards will be maintained and that the hypothesis will do no harm. Where were they as it refers to Hooker, Zimbardo, Milgram, and Neubauer?
There are others and they were passed along, too. What damage was done and should the researchers and educational institutions pay some price for this transgression of ethics?