We can’t help but be interested in extremes. A few weeks back, we attempted to gather together some of the more visually gruesome ways to perish by nature’s hand – and now, we thought we’d treat you, so to speak, with some of the most disturbing psychological experiments ever conducted.
“Most disturbing” is a tricky criterion to meet, but we’ll certainly give it our best shot. So, let’s start with a classic, shall we?
1 – The Milgram Experiment
Arguably the most infamous psychological experiment of all time, the Milgram experiment has continued to shock and bemuse researchers and the general public ever since it was originally carried out, with variants of it appearing in recent research and even high-profile TV shows.
First conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram back in 1963, it was motivated by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German Nazi lieutenant colonel and one of the architects of the Holocaust. While on trial, he famously effused that “he was just following orders”, and Milgram wanted to explore this further. Do people do terrible things just because an authority figure ordered them too?
To find out, a deception was devised. In one room, 40 (male-only) participants sat; they were told that in the other, a man being trained to learn paired words awaited their questions.
If they asked a question to test him on said knowledge and he failed to answer correctly, they administered an electric shock. The shocks were at higher voltages for each subsequent question, and cries of pain could be heard from the man in the room until he was apparently made unconscious.
Of course, there weren’t any electric shocks being administered, and the man was an actor. The point was to see how far people would keep going simply because an authority figure was telling them it was fine to do so.
Clearly, such an experiment provided the scientific community with some decidedly ethical pitfalls to explore. It was game-changing in what it aimed to discover, but the potential to inflict trauma on the participants is easy to see – and contemporary replications of the experiment have attempted to circumvent those to varying degrees.