Psychologists get a bit of a raw deal in the scientific community. They don’t get the street cred of the “hard” scientists in physics or chemistry, and they are barely ever involved in improbable love plots with blonde waitresses who move in across the hall.
But there is one domain in which psychologists equal, and indeed, surpass their haughty scientific cousins: madness. Most people already know about Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience and Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, but these only scratch the surface. The following three examples show how psychologists have been setting the bar in mad science for generations.
Lawrence LeShan Whispers into Children’s Dream
In 1942, Lawrence LeShan had a single goal: to get kids to stop biting their nails, as there was nothing else going wrong with the world at that time. LeShan was so committed to his task that he took some children to a camp in upstate New York in hopes of putting a stop to their nail-biting immediately, because he didn’t know that nail-biting is actually a sign of perfectionism. You could be forgiven for thinking that a strange man absconding with a group of children off to a camp site as part of a psychology study would make those children more likely to bite their nails, but you’re not a 1940s scientist, so what do you know?
Science was done right in the 1940s
LeShan didn’t mess around with simple cognitive therapy or positive reinforcement to stop the scourge of nail-biting, though. No, he had an altogether different way of getting in children’s minds: through their dreams, while they slept. Indeed, he waited for the kids to fall asleep before setting up a phonograph to play the message “my fingernails taste terribly bitter” 50 times, for 6 sets a night.
How anyone got any sleep with a phonograph going is a question for another day
Why he made the kids internalize that their nails tasted bitter instead of just telling them they shouldn’t bite their nails is anyone’s guess, but we’ll just assume the ability to brainwash children was his back-up hypothesis.
Examining the possibility of murder in the Dreamworld was rejected by the funding council
LeShan’s master plan hit a snag, though, when his trusty phonograph broke, perhaps as a form of protest. Some people would let this get the best of them and go home, but not LeShan. No, instead of going back to the drawing board (or back into town to buy a new phonograph), LeShan decided the best course of action would be to whisper the message to the children while they were sleeping. For 6 sets a night. For 50 times a set.
To be absolutely clear, Lawrence LeShan took a bunch of children to a camp in the woods and stood over them during nightfall while they slept, repeatedly whispering message about how their fingernails tasted bad. All to get kids to stop biting their nails. This is a man who hates nail-biting.
“Nail-biting is what they do in Nazi Germany!”
In the end, it was all worth it, as 40% of the children stopped biting their nails. It worked! Or maybe not, who knows?
It is safe to assume 100% of them sat up in bed at night in wide-eyed, sleep-deprived horror, lest the fingernail man come visit them in their dreams.
John B. Watson Breeds Fear in an Infant
Let’s stick with the topic of instilling panic in children. In 1920, John B. Watson, psychologist, wanted to know how to instill phobias in people, which sounds a little less like a psychologist and a little more like a Batman villain. He focused his tests on one infant, “Little Albert”, who in hindsight was truly one of the most unfortunate infants to ever have his mother volunteer him for scientific study.
As foreshadowed by this picture
Watson wanted to see if he could make Little Albert develop a fear of rats. First, he placed rats and other animals near the baby to show that Little Albert did not originally fear these creatures. “Oh, but you will, you will”, Watson presumably muttered to himself, while tenting his fingers and smiling evilly.
Watson, seen here getting in a light trapezius workout
In the next phase of his study, he exposed Little Albert to a rat, then slammed a steel bar with a hammer, making a loud noise. Little Albert was startled by this noise, because he was a baby and therefore unused to strange men hammering metal behind his head.
Watson repeated this procedure over and over. Unsurprisingly, this practice of flinging rats around while banging metal together was a bit much for Little Albert. He learned to associate rats (and anything furry) with the loud noise, and became fearful of seeing these things even when the loud noises stopped. In short, he developed a phobia of rats, furry things, and presumably scientists.
This wasn’t even part of the experiment. Watson just did this for kicks
The study showed the phobias were learned, not innate, and that they could be associated with traumatic experiences early in life. The field of psychology learned that letting researchers have free reign over children wasn’t always the best idea, and introduced new, stricter ethics protocols that didn’t allow scientists to traumatize babies. It was a win-win for everybody!
Albert’s Mom and Dad even won a “Worst Parents of the Year” award
Except for Little Albert, I guess. He doesn’t seem to win in this story at all.
As for John B. Watson, his research on fear began to worry and disturb people, and society drove him underground. It is rumoured that he is currently a ward of Arkham Asylum, and that he carries on his experiments to this very day.
He even still uses his mask
You can watch a video of the experiment here. I should probably tell you, the video shows a man throwing various animals at a baby in order to get him to cry.
Carney Landis Decapitates Rats
In 1924, University of Minnesota graduate student Carney Landis wanted to see if all people made the same facial expressions in response to certain emotions, which seems reasonable enough. Instead of testing emotions like happiness or contentment, though, Carney decided to go with disgust and pain, perhaps because those are the most accessible emotions in Minnesota.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here
Anyways, Landis started off his completely serious scientific investigation by drawing lines on the faces of his subjects with a marker to more easily observe changes in expression. This in itself produced a pretty shocking result, as it transformed normal-looking members of society into frightening marionette people.
“THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO!!!”
To see what people looked like in pain, Landis shocked them. This would be hard to get an ethics board to clear today, but apparently it was no big deal in 1924. Hell, other scientists of the time were trying to create ape men by breeding humans with chimpanzees, so a little electrocution was nothing to worry about. They probably didn’t even mention it in the study waiver.
To elicit disgust, Landis had participants stick their hands in a bucket of frogs. These days, scientists can use standardized disgust scales and stimuli and simply have people read about disgusting scenarios, but again, 1924 was a more hardcore time. If frogs grossed people out, then psychologists were going to make people touch gross frogs.
After electrocuting people and making them fondle frogs, though, Landis got truly dark. Frustrated by the inconclusive expressions of despair, Carney decided to cut right to the point. And by “cut” I mean “cut”, and by “to the point”, I mean “a rat’s head off”. To clarify, Carney Landis would bring his participants a live white rat, and demand they behead it. To see their facial expressions. As they cut off a rat’s head with a scalpel.
“That seems a tad harsh”
Two-thirds of participants just went ahead (ahem) and did it, which may seem surprising, but remember they were seated in front of a man who had just shocked them and jammed their hands into a bucket of frogs after drawing lines all over their face like a lunatic. They were probably just relieved that the scalpel wasn’t meant for them. It didn’t matter if a participant refused to decapitate their rat, though, because Landis would just go ahead and do it for them, right in front of their face. Carney Landis hated rats.
You would be angry if you were named Carney, too.
So, what did ol’ Carney learn from this mass slaughter of rodents? That different people make different facial expressions for the same emotion. Far be it from me to devalue the incremental advances that create the greater scientific knowledge base, but one has to wonder if the rats were necessary, or if Carney could’ve stopped somewhere between the shocks and frogs.
One last note about the experiment. One of his subjects was a 13 year old boy who was in the Department of Psychology because he was suspected to be emotionally unstable. He must have made a wrong turn somewhere, though, because he ended up in Carney’s experiment instead. This is the face he made:
You may recognize this emotion as “lifelong trauma”
It seems unlikely that the boy’s emotional instability was helped by his trip to the psych department.