There have been several scientific studies done on both humans and animals that have been major for society at large. Yet some have been, shall we say, pretty terrible. Even some that were considered to be a great benefit for society might have been done in a horrific way. Whether psychological, biological, or anatomical, the studies on humans have not always been great for the experimental subjects. Sometimes, it was terrible for the person doing the experiment too.
While there are some studies on humans that were bad, they might not be very popular. Sometimes, you might not hear of them at all. Others, meanwhile, became very famous. In spite of that fame, history might remember them for what they found but also how bad they were. Today, several would never be allowed or considered ethical. You might be surprised just how many there are. That said, follow us as we discuss many of them!
Stanford Prison Experiment
Parties Involved:Stanford University & Dr. Phillip Zimbardo
Stanford University is famous for some of its groundbreaking studies over the years. Yet one they are now synonymous with is an experiment revolving around prisonsand psychological issues prisoners went through. They could not use a “real” prison for obvious reasons. This led them to create their own at the school. The Head Researcher, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, served as the lead but also as the Warden. The university paid Students to be “prisoners” while others were paid to be “guards.”
The issue with the experiment is that it put these 20-something students through psychological torture. Zimbardo encouraged the guards to act as what they believe guards would act like. Which resulted in them hazing and harassing prisoners. This included not letting them use the restroom, forcing them to sleep on concrete, and spraying them with fire extinguishers, on top of solitary. The study was meant to go on for 14 days and was stopped at 6 due to the severe problems it caused.
Parties Involved:University of Iowa & Dr. Wendell Johnson
Now nicknamed “The Monster Study,” Dr. Wendell Johnson of the University of Iowa did a study on 22 orphaned children. This alone should be a red flag. The study involved speech, where the children were separated into two groups. Most children involved spoke perfectly fine. Yet the way they were treated in each group differed heavily. One group was praised for how they said things, regardless of how good or bad it was.
The other was belittled for nearly every word they said and even told they were studdering when they were not. In spite of the students not having speech problems, many of those belittled ended up developing speech issues by the end of the study. It proved how horrific negativity can be on a child. It is one of the most controversial studies on humans in history. Even the University itself and Johnson’s peers were horrified. This led to the school covering it up for years to protect Johnson’s reputation! The university did not publish the study, yet they also did not apologize for it until 2001!!
The influential psychologist Sigmund Freud is famous for coining some of psychology’s most important concepts. Yet the study he decided to do on Emma Eckstein is considered to be horrific. She began seeing the psychologist for help with some vague symptoms such as slight depression and stomach problems. Only 27 at the time and unknown to her, Freud “treated” her for hysteria and excessive masturbation. The latter of which was considered bad for mental health at the time.
This would then lead to Emma having a horrific experimental surgery. During this, she was given only a small local anesthetic and cocaine before the inside of her nose was cauterized. The surgery was terrible for Emma. Some feel Emma was not a specific patient but rather someone the German doctor was interested in, however. He would treat her for three more years. Studies on humans like this, today, would lead to the doctor’s medical license being taken away and he’d be thrown in prison.
Parties Involved:University of Minnesota & Carney Landis
Psychology graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Carney Landis, decided to conduct an experiment. He wanted to see if all people have common facial expressions when feeling various emotions. Such as, do we all look the same when happy, sad, or angry? The study, done in 1924, began simple enough. First, Landis had student participants smell ammonia, put their hands into a bucket of frogs, and even watch adult material.
Then Landis then took things up a notch when he forced the students to decapitate a LIVE rodent. While using mice in lab settings is nothing new, this usually involves testing on the mice themselves. You rarely see them used in such a manner, even in the 1920s. The reason this is one of the most famous studies on humans is that it quite literally proved a point. It found that facial expressions are NOT tied to emotions. In fact, human facial expressions can differ wildly regardless of emotion.
North Korea is not known for being great to its people. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Most live in horrific poverty and in horrific conditions. Yet you’d think this would be enough, but not for North Korea. In fact, they have been experimenting on their people for decades. Due to NK silencing most people within their nation, we only know of many studies on humans that the nation did due to defectors. One experiment witnesses involved 50 healthy women being given poisoned cabbage leaves.
All 50 died within 20 minutes. Another experiment reported was the practice of surgery on NK prisoners without any form of anesthetic. Some prisoners were purposely starved to death, or beaten over the head and used as target practice. In some cases, whole families would be put into chambers and murdered with suffocation gases. The defectors claimed that each month, a black van called “the crow” picked up 40 to 50 people from a camp and took them to unknown experiment locations.
Parties Involved:Johns Hopkins University & John B. Watson
John Hopkins University Professor, John B. Watson, had a theory he wanted to test in 1920. Is fear innate or conditioned? As in, are you born with those fears or are they developed? To test this, he exposed a baby of 9 months named Albert to several different things to stimulate a reaction. This ranged from things like wool to even live rats all without any conditioning, to which Albert showed no fear at all. Then Watson decided to do the same things, but this time, use conditioning.
To do this, Watson banged loud noises behind Albert to startle and upset him when exposing him to things. This was to force Albert to associate the noise with the things he was exposed to. Thus, making him develop fears of anything white & fluffy and much more. Psychologists later claimed Albert may have had a neurological disorder before testing him, but Watson claims he was healthy. Sadly, the child died from hydrocephalus at just 6. This is when the brain cavity builds up with fluid, and puts pressure on the brain. Some speculate that exposing Albert to potential life-long fears led to his hydrocephalus issue.
Just one day after Civil Rights Activist & Minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, was slain, Third-Grade Schoolteacher Jane Elliot had an idea. She decided to conduct what is now known as the “Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes Exercise.” She separated her students into two groups, those with brown eyes and those with blue eyes. Elliot then began to treat one group as superior based on knowingly false scientific evidence. It took 1 day for those in the “superior” group to treat the children in the other group badly.
They began to act cruelly toward them, believing in their superiority. This exercise is now considered to be pretty controversial, yet it ranks among the famous studies on humans as it proved a big point. Just like with many white people assuming themselves to be superior to black people, it is based on nothing factual. Elliot’s point was to highlight the effects of racial segregation and her exercise quite literally exposed that. Yet it is still incredibly controversial due to children being involved.
California High School History Teacher, Ron Jones, decided to conduct an experiment. He knew that fascism and other movements began with simple issues that compelled people to join and even defend horrible things connected to them. A lot of them starting with easy, understandable material that people could technically believe in. This before they go into the horrible stuff. He decided to test his theory on the students, leading to the experiment now dubbed “The Third Wave.”
He wanted to show how Germans were compelled to join The Third Reich. Therefore, Jones spent 5 days creating a social movement in his class called “The Wave.” It was based on the same principles of discipline and order that were compelling portions of fascism. The movement apparently made its way out of class too. Jones then made an announcement that a New Wave Presidential candidate would be appearing, leading to hundreds of people showing up to see the candidate. Jones stopped the study when everyone gathered, telling them this was exactly how fascism began.
Parties Involved:United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
America’s Central Intelligence Agency or CIA is not known for doing experiments on people in a positive way. In fact, most of the studies on humans connected to them (others of which are on this list), are usually pretty bad. The experiment now known as Project MK-Ultra was no exception to this. From 1953 to 1973, the CIA conducted an illegal program on both American and Canadian human beings.
The entire program was built around developing drugs and procedures to force confessions out of people. Whether it be through mind-control, interrogation, or torture. The size of Project MK-Ultra was incredibly huge, as experiments took place at 86 different universities and institutions. Accounts directly tied to it can be found all over the place. There are even some lawsuits connected. One of which included an “unwitting victim” that was forced to be a living test tube for mind-altering drugs. It should not surprise you that there have been many more lawsuits surrounding it beyond this.
Parties Involved:Willowbrook State School & Dr. Saul Krugman
If you want to find someone to hate today, we invite you to look into Dr. Saul Krugman and the Willowbrook State School. This school was technically a state-run institution for mentally handicapped children. The school was poorly managed and cleaned, making it incredibly likely that the kids would at some point get sick. Krugman and co. used the lack of a properly maintained environment as an excuse to help themselves.
The doctor gave several mentally handicapped children Hepatitis in what is now known as “The Willowbrook Experiments.” The idea was that he could test how specific drugs affected them in an effort to make a vaccine for Hepatitis. The moral idea of giving kids Hepatitis alone is horrible, even worse when adding their mental issues into it. Moreover, the conditions at the institution were horrific and that needed to be fixed, not taken advantage of. Studies on humans like this make you want to strangle people sometimes. Oh, and by the way, the Willbrook Experiments went on for 14 YEARS!
When the United States government tested out nuclear weapons, they often tried to do it far away from any place that could potentially harm humans. At least, usually. During the Castle Bravo Nuclear Test, they managed to test out an effective bomb at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It worked better than assumed, but the impressive yield led to several Marshallese being exposed to massive amounts of beta and gamma radiation.
The test happened on March 1, 1954. A few days later, the U.S. Government began Project 4.1. This was a medical study where the U.S. tested the residents on the Marshall Islands to see how the radiation exposure affected them. Studies on humans like this are controversial, so it was “top secret” for a very long time. Roughly 239 Marshallese were exposed to the high radiation from Castle Bravo. While most believe this was an accident that the U.S. just took advantage of for testing, many Marshallese believe it was planned from the start.
In theory, The Bobo Doll Experiment was worth doing. The problem is how it was done, as well as what it proved could occur among children when properly conditioned. Dr. Albert Bandura wanted to see if children would mimic adult violence if they were exposed to it. He did so in three different experiments from 1961 to 1963. The first experiment had adults show aggressive behavior toward a Bobo Doll. The second was a passive adult that merely played with the same Doll.
Finally, the third test formed a control group. The result of his tests found that when children were exposed to aggression toward the Bobo Doll, they too were more likely to abuse the doll. Studies on humans like this became controversial due to literally causing aggression among the children involved in the study. It also showed how easily impressionable children are at a young age. This proves that they will mimic both negative and positive actions of adults around them.
Facebook is not known for being exactly, well, forthcoming about some of its practices. In all fairness, they are a private company that can do as they please on their own platform. However, when a person signs the user agreement on Facebook, they agree to many things. Of course, some of those policies have been updated over the years. One update allows Facebook to monitor trends in our feeds to gather data. On top of this, Facebook can track specific people for any reason.
However, one big outrage happened in 2012 over what is now called “The Facebook Experiment.” The company wanted to see how people reacted to happy or sad content. If you see one or the other, are you more likely to post sad or happy content too? The answer to the question was, obviously, yes. To do this, Facebook tweaked the algorithms of specific users to give them a bleak or cheerful newsfeed for a week. Users mimicked what they saw, but studies on humans like this became controversial. At the time, Facebook did not have permission to do this without getting users’ informed consent first.
Parties Involved:South African Government & Dr. Aubrey Levin
During the height of South Africa’s horrific Apartheid Era in 1969, the government gathered up thousands of homosexual men and women. They were handed over to the care of Dr. Aubrey Levin, an Army Colonel & Psychologist. He was convinced that he could “cure” them. This led him to do a lot of experiments on them at the Voortrekkerhoogte Military Hospital, all completely against their will. Among the experiments he used included electroconvulsive aversion therapy.
Levin felt it would “reorientate” them. To do this, electrodes were strapped to a person’s upper arm with wires running to a dial from 1 to 10. Homosexual men were shown pictures of naked men whom they were encouraged to fantasize about. They were then severely shocked several times. Studies on humans like this are clearly horrible. In fact, Levin was told he was going to be named an abuser of human rights for this, leading him to immigrate to Canada to save himself.
Parties Involved:San Quentin State Prison & Dr. Leo Stanley
If you’ve ever seen a movie about a corrupt prison where surgeons take advantage of the prison population, it is likely based on the San Quentin Prison Experiments. At this California prison, from 1913 to 1951, the prison’s Chief Surgeon Dr. Leo Stanley performed a series of experiments on prisoners. Most of them were completely bizarre and some were downright horrible, with all being completely against the will of the prisoners.
Among them includes sterilizing people as well as developing possible treatments for the Spanish Flu. Yet one takes the cake more than any other. Stanley performed several testicle experiments on LIVING prisoners, where he would remove one man’s testicles and transplant them with those of an executed prisoner. During some of these testicle experiments, he even replaced them with the testicles of goats or boars. Obviously, studies on humans such as this are now highly illegal.
In 1965, David Peter Reimer was born as a biological male. At just seven months old, the young boy’s penis was tragically destroyed. It happened by accident during an unconventional circumcision by cauterization, which even at the time was not recommended. A Psychologist named John Money felt that gender was learned. He convinced David’s parents that their son would have a successful, functional sexual maturation as a girl rather than a boy. Money reported success over the years.
However, this was by no means the truth. David’s own account of the issue was very different. He claimed to NEVER identify as a female, nor did he feel he’d ever be one. During his childhood, he was teased, not included in many groups, and developed serious depression. This depression is likely what led him to commit suicide at just 38 years old. Studies on humans like this are terrible for numerous reasons. The biggest being that one cannot be “forced” into a gender identity that differs from their biological sex. It needs to be something THEY decide upon themselves.
Parties Involved:U.S. Government, Guatemalan President Juan José Arévalo, & Some Guatemalan Health Ministries
In one of the worst studies on humans that the United States Government has ever been involved in, we give you the Guatemalan Syphilis Experiment. It was no just America involved here. In fact, the then-President of Guatemala, Juan José Arévalo & some of the Health Ministries in the country were also involved. During the experiments, which went from 1946 to 1948, doctors intentionally infected soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners, and even mental patients with Syphilis.
Yet they did not stop there, they also gave them other sexually transmitted diseases too. The idea was that they would be able to track how these diseases affected those they infected. However, none knew they were given the infections by doctors at the time. Plus, they were only treated with antibiotics of that period, and the experiment led to a documented 30 deaths with others believed to have happened. In 2010, the U.S. Government apologized for its role in this, but it’s truly not enough.
The Bystander Effect was technically a good idea for an experiment but had several problems with it. This is one of the studies on humans that grew in popularity due to the controversial results. In fact, an American TV Show called The Office actually did a parody of this very experiment. In 1964, psychologists & researchers John Darley & Bibb Latané wanted to test if people were willing to help victims based on the number of people involved. For the first test, a person was left alone in an office setting with harmless smoke vapor entering through the vents.
For the second test, a group of people would be left in the office while the same smoke came through. The study found that the individuals moved quicker and were more likely to report the smoke than groups. The researchers even kicked the testing up a notch by hiring an actor to fake a seizure to test the response time of participants. The study was controversial due to the psychological issues and mental scaring it did to participants. Obviously, they were put in a panic-filled environment, unaware of what they were entering.
Parties Involved:Imperial Japanese Army & Japanese Government
The Japanese Government along with its Imperial Army developed a covert biological & chemical warfare research experiment referred to as Unit 731. This experiment was technically not just “one” experiment but SEVERAL. It is also one of the most infamous war crimes in human history. From 1937 to 1945, they used both Chinese & Russian subjects. This included adult men and women, but also children, infants, and even the elderly. Moreover, some of the women were also pregnant!
A few of the experiments involved surgically removing organs from a live body. Limbs were amputated to study blood loss. On top of this, prisoners had their entire stomach removed, with their esophagus removed and then attached to their intestines. It became even worse, as they also tested germ warfare and weapons on some. Most of the scientists involved in these experiments went on to have prominent careers in the Japanese Government, Academics, & Medicine.
Psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Loftus was the architect of the “Lost in the Mall Technique.” She successfully proved how false memories can be planted in someone’s brain. During the 1990s, she tested her concept on 24 participants. She told them all short narratives describing childhood events. Each was told 4 different stories and claimed each one had been verified by their family members. However, three were true stories while one was false.
The false story involved how a participant had been lost in a shopping mall for several hours. Loftus is a highly respected professor at the University of California, Irvine. Her work in psychology throughout her career is still discussed in psychology courses. However, studies on humans like this are naturally controversial for many reasons. Her psychology peers claim that exposing people to a traumatizing event that never happened was unnecessary and a form of psychological torture.
Year Conducted:1921 to 1970s (reactivated in 1990s)
Parties Involved:The Soviet Union & Russian Governments
The Soviet Union is not going to be remembered by history as amazing. In fact, they will go down most likely as terrible, especially due to how they treated their people. One such example of mistreatment is the now infamous Soviet Union Poison Experiment. Starting in 1921, the government employed poison laboratories known as Laboratory 1, Laboratory 12, and Kamera. They operated as covert research facilities that performed tests on prisoners from the Gulags.
The prisoners were exposed to several deadly poisons. Of course, these experiments were done to find a tasteless, odorless chemical that could not be detected postmortem. Among the poisons used includes mustard gas, ricin, digitoxin, curare, and many more. The Soviets even decided to test people outside prisons. Thus, men and women of multiple ages and physical conditions being brought into labs to be given poison. They told them was medication, a meal, or a drink. Dozens died.
While testing on children is pretty bad to do, one would assume that you would have some limitations on testing. Well, not if you spoke to researchers from the University of California in the 1960s. Known today mostly as the Newborns Experiment, the university decided to study several blood-related issues using infants. They used exactly 113 newborns ranging from just one hour to three days old!
During one experiment, a catheter was inserted through the umbilical arteries and into the aorta. Some newborns had their feet submerged in ice water to test aortic pressure. Possibly one of the worst was when they strapped 50 newborns onto a circumcision board. They would then tilt the table so that blood rushed to their head in an effort to test blood pressure. Most if not all of this could have been massively harmful to any child. Even some mothers did not even know about the experiments.
The United States Government has been obsessed with finding a way to perform mind control for literally decades. They tested out some form of this from the 1920s to at least the 1990s. However, some of their studies on this remained top secret for a long time. One of the most infamous on their list of studies on humans is known as Operation Midnight Climax. The study was given its nickname due to how the CIA lured in participants. Seriously, the CIA used prostitutes to lure in unsuspecting men in both San Francisco & New York City.
No one consented to the experiments. The most common experiment was giving LSD or other mind-altering drugs to people to see how it affected them. They might have one person in the room with them, but there was always one or more people behind one-way glass used to monitor the person. Of course, Operation Midnight Climax did not result in mind-control. Yet it did involve sexual blackmail, surveillance technology, and giving people drugs that could affect their brains. Naturally, all of this was illegal even then.
Parties Involved: United States Government, Tuskegee Institute
The U.S. Government has already proven it is willing to use its own people to do some horrific things. Yet one stands out above them all. In fact, the United Nations claims it is a human rights violation. Studies on humans can be controversial, but this specific study led to the nationwide outbreak of a very dangerous disease. Beginning in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service began working with the Tuskegee Institute to track the natural progression of syphilis. They decided to go to Macon County, Alabama, where they were able to find 600 poor, illiterate, male sharecroppers (all being black).
Of the 600 men they found, 399 had previously contracted syphilis. However, none were told they had it. Instead, they were told they would be getting free healthcare, meals, and even burial insurance for participating in this unknown study. Even when we found that penicillin was a cure for syphilis in 1947, the Health Service continued their study up to 1972 on these men. Unsurprisingly, many of their wives contracted the disease and several of their children were born with congenital syphilis. It is by far the worst thing (outside of slavery & war) that we’ve ever done to our own people.
We all know by now how horrific the Holocaust was. It led to the deaths of over 6 million Jewish people in Germany between the 1930s to around the mid-1940s. Jewish people were often rounded up and thrown into “concentration camps” where several were simply killed. Yet one might say they were the lucky ones because some camps decided to keep Jewish men, women, and children alive. Why? Well, to do medical experiments on them obviously!
Among the experiments included forcing them to drink seawater as they found a way to make it drinkable. Yet some involved throwing Jews out of planes to see the distance one could parachute to safety. Meanwhile, some were forced into freezing conditions to test hypothermia symptoms. The Nazis also forced tested poisons on people, as well as conducted bone-grafting surgeries on some. However, others were given life-threatening diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and infectious hepatitis as a way to develop vaccines. Sadly, we only covered about 3% of the total experiments conducted.