The "Monster Experiment" In The 1930s Involved Gaslighting And Tormenting Orphans

Extract from the study. Image credit: upnorthmemories/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), IOWA Research Online

There are few experiments in human history as grim as the "Monster Study", in which American psychologists Wendell Johnson, Mary Tudor, and their team set out to deliberately belittle a group of orphans in an attempt to induce stuttering.

Johnson believed that calling attention to hesitations and repetitions in children's speech could itself cause stuttering. In essence, he thought that drawing attention to normal broken speech patterns in children – whether out loud, through diagnosis, or through non-verbal reactions to these speech breaks – played a part in causing and reinforcing stuttering

If this theory was correct, it would theoretically be possible to take a group of children with typical speech patterns and induce a stutter by drawing attention to pauses that take place in speech typical of their age group. You'd have to be some kind of monster to actually go and do this though, right? Right. As history has shown time and time again, that doesn't mean it wasn't about to go ahead.

In 1939, Johnson and Tudor selected 22 orphan children from the Soldiers and Sailors Orphans' Home in Davenport, Iowa. Of these children, 10 had been labeled as having a stutter prior to the arrival of the psychologists by teachers and matrons at the orphanage. The other 12 were considered by the home and independent judges to have usual speech patterns, and a range of fluency.

These children were then subdivided into smaller groups for the experiment. Five children who had been labeled stutterers would have that label removed, to see if their speech would improve. The other five children who had stutters would continue to keep this label.

In the group of children without speech problems is where things got extremely ethically murky. Six of these children would be complimented on their speaking ability, and labeled as "normal speakers". The remaining six would be labeled as having a stutter.

"That is," Mary Tudor wrote in the only surviving record of the experiment, which was not formally published – which some people think was in order to protect Johnson's reputation. "They were told that the type of speech interruptions they were having indicated that they were stutterers."

From January until late May, Tudor would visit these children for sessions, in which she would react to the children's speech in a way dictated by the group they had been assigned to. Their teachers were also told to react to them as if they had been diagnosed with a stutter.

"You should impress upon them the value of good speech, and that In order to have good speech one has to speak fluently," they were told. "Watch their speech all the time very carefully and stop them when they have interruptions; stop them and have them say it over. Don’t allow them to speak unless they can say it right. They should be made very conscious of their speech, and also they should be given opportunities to talk so that their mistakes can be pointed out to them."

On the surface, it was a resounding success (and you have to ask yourself "are we the baddies" when your big win is that children have developed a speech impediment), as the children with no previous speech disorders did appear to develop problems. However, probably to Johnson's dismay, these were mainly that they were anxious about their own speech rather than developing a stutter. Speech fluency didn't seem to show a pattern of change throughout the different study groups. "They looked like stutterers. They spoke fine," wrote Tudor.

"It was very difficult to get her to speak, although she spoke very freely the month before," Tudor wrote of one 5-year-old. One stopped speaking for the most part, even to their best friend. Another "held hand or arm over eyes most of the time".

The effects were long-lasting. The children's performance in school plummeted, and their speech was inhibited, whether through anxiety or a developed stutter. Eventually, a payout of $1million was paid to the participants, though it only went so far in repairing the damage done.

''It just ruined my life," Mary Nixon, one of the participants in the experiment told the New York Times years later. ''I can't talk no more."

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