Shocking Psychological Studies and the Lessons They Teach

Course No. 10000
Professor Thad A. Polk, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
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Course No. 10000
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Discover the astonishing history of some of America’s most compelling—and damaging—scientific studies
  • numbers Study the research conducted on those with a limited ability to protect themselves—children, the poor, and the mentally ill
  • numbers Uncover the truth about studies from the secret files of the military and intelligence agencies, including the notorious MK-Ultra Program
  • numbers Reveal how your own data might be used by those studying behavior and consider the possible consequences of your online presence
  • numbers Learn about the Belmont Report's principles, a set of three ethical principles that have helped change the way scientists approach human testing and behavioral studies

Course Overview

We live in a time of amazing new technologies—and an unparalleled level of surveillance. Virtually every aspect of human behavior is tracked millions of times a day through the technology that we all, often without giving it a thought, use every day. The collected data has the potential of providing vital insight into the human experience, but can the scientific community explore the psychosocial experience of humanity without making victims of us all?

This is just one of the many questions tackled by Dr. Thad Polk, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, in Shocking Psychological Studies and the Lessons They Teach. In this six-lecture course, you will explore several controversial psychological experiments from the past that have nonetheless contributed significant insight into the human condition. In looking back at these past studies—what they taught us as well as the damage they caused—Dr. Polk elucidates the contemporary ethical principles now in place to protect both subjects and science. As you will see, with every new technological and scientific advancement, there also comes a new set of ethical conundrums for researchers to grapple with.

Establishing Ethical Principles

First of all, how do we assess the ethics of psychological testing and studies? One framework is based on the Belmont Report, first drafted by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in 1976. This report identified three ethical principles that should direct and define any and all research conducted on human beings. Specifically, these principles are:

  • Respect for Persons. Human subjects should at all times be treated with respect as autonomous agents possessed of free will. Persons lacking such agency, or with diminished autonomy (such as children or those with mental disabilities) should be given extra protections to ensure that they are treated without exploitation or unnecessary risk. Researchers have a responsibility to obtain the consent of research participants and those participants should always have sufficient information about the study and its purposes to make informed decisions about their participation.
  • Beneficence. This principle asks researchers to weigh the potential benefits of a study against its potential risks. Will the benefits of this research outweigh the risks of undertaking and reporting on it? Are the researchers generally considering the best interests of both the participants and humanity as they design and execute the study?
  • Justice. Is the study fair? Does it treat different groups of people equitably in terms of both risk and reward? Does the study include an appropriately broad range of ethnic and socioeconomic group participants? Is the study sensitive to issues of age, race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic status? What steps have the researchers taken to ensure equity across such lines? These are the questions that research teams must address as they work toward justice while adhering to the principles of the Belmont Report.

The shocking studies that Dr. Polk explores violated the Belmont Report’s principles, in part because most of them were conducted before the principles were adopted in 1976. In fact, some of these studies directly influenced the creation of these principles to protect test subjects in the future. It’s true that each of these studies provides important insights into human behavior—but at what cost?

Power and Human Ethical Behavior

Two of the most compelling and significant psychological studies in the 20th century were the Milgram Obedience Study and the Stanford Prison Experiment. In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram at Yale University sought to understand why so many German soldiers and citizens were complicit in the atrocities of the Holocaust. He wanted to know if ordinary people would really follow any and all orders coming down from a higher authority, even if those orders meant doing someone else significant harm.

Approximately 10 years later, in 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University also wanted to examine the causes of unethical human behavior. He designed a study that simulated a prison environment, assigning Stanford students to roles as either guards or prisoners. As you will see in this course, what he learned about the effect these roles had on the behavior of ordinary people was truly shocking.

Dr. Polk describes each of these watershed studies in detail, explaining what was learned about human behavior, as well as what researchers later came to understand about the unethical research methods that allowed these studies to operate the way they did.

Protecting the Vulnerable

One of the key ideas behind the Belmont Report’s principles applies specifically to the importance of protecting those least capable of protecting themselves. Dr. Polk provides both compelling descriptions and detailed explanations of a wide variety of studies that failed to protect the most vulnerable research subjects. He looks at studies that did not offer appropriate medical care or information to seriously ill and impoverished subjects, as well as experiments that kept children and their adoptive parents from knowing about the children’s biological siblings, and others that created severe anxiety around childhood speech development, and even studies of psychoactive drugs that destroyed the lives of American soldiers.

Many of these studies have proven important to science, but each, considered by the ethical standards we insist upon for scientific research today, falls far short of the mark. They are compelling lessons in human psychology, yet also deeply concerning examples of unethical and dangerous scientific work.

Private Made Public

Ironically, some of the most vital research around private spaces has generated substantial public outrage. In his final two lectures, Dr. Polk describes studies that sought to provide a window into issues regarding sex, in the Tearoom Trade Study, and gender identity, in the John/Joan case. In the first, a graduate student studied and interviewed men who used public restrooms for anonymous sexual encounters. In the second, a “biologically normal” male child was sexually altered and raised as female. Both studies raised serious concerns about both ethics and privacy.

At the end of the course, Dr. Polk returns to the concerns about electronic privacy issues that he brought up in the very beginning—an issue that affects nearly everyone who participates in the online world that is such a huge part of modern life. Do users of social media understand the implications of the data they provide? How can researchers reasonably use that data without breaching the Belmont Report’s principles? What data, and in what form, is appropriately public and what can each of us expect will be kept private? Finally, he concludes the course by explaining the protocols now in place and the ways in which even those protocols for research sometimes fall short of the three ethical principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. As we consider the mistakes of the past, we can hopefully move forward into a more ethical and just future in the scientific search for answers about who we are.

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6 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Lessons from Tuskegee and Facebook
    Today, research with human subjects is guided by a set of three ethical principles of the 1976 Belmont Report, but that was not always the case. In the first lecture of this six-lecture course, Professor Polk explores the famous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and how its ethical violations ultimately led to the development of the Belmont Report and the ethical principles it identified. x
  • 2
    Pushing Good People to Do Bad Things
    Why do good people sometimes do bad things? Professor Polk encourages us to grapple with two of the most famous psychological studies on ethics and human psychology: Milgram's Obedience Study and the Stanford Prison Experiment. Each study offers invaluable lessons about human behavior. Look at the ways that these explorations into the causes of unethical human behavior were, themselves, astonishingly unethical. x
  • 3
    Experimenting on Vulnerable Children
    Arguably, the most vulnerable people in any population are the children. Childhood development studies can also provide invaluable insights into human psychology. Here, explore two studies where children were the focus: Neubauer’s twin study and Johnson’s “Monster Study” of testing the origins of stuttering. Discover why, according to the Belmont Report’s principles, these “subjects” might be identified more accurately as “victims.” x
  • 4
    Testing Psychochemical Weapons
    Government organizations such as the CIA and military are charged with protecting the public, but in these shocking experiments, vulnerable low-ranking soldiers and psychiatric patients were unwittingly subjected to psychoactive drugs. Uncover the ways in which these observational studies lacked both rigorous scientific design and adherence to any of the Belmont Report's principles. In fact, the results of these studies often led to hallucinations, paranoia, rage, and even death. x
  • 5
    Assigning Gender and Spying on Sex
    Studies of sex and sexual identity present unique ethical challenges for privacy and consent. In the next two studies, Professor Polk takes you into the private world of sexual identity and impulse. The Tearoom Trade Study considers the public identities and private choices of anonymous public sex participants. The John/Joan case explores the sexual identity of a biologically male child raised as a female. x
  • 6
    Current and Future Ethical Challenges
    Science still grapples with the ethics of studying human subjects. Increasingly, data is available about every aspect of human life through our uninhibited interactions with technology. The study of such data sets is affordable, widely generalizable, and easily accessible. But is it ethical? You'll also discover that the conclusions presented in scientific journals, even under our more rigorous ethical guidelines, may not be as reliable as we thought. x

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Your professor

Thad A. Polk

About Your Professor

Thad A. Polk, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
Professor Thad A. Polk is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He received a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Virginia and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Computer Science and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University. He also received postdoctoral training in cognitive neuroscience at the...
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Shocking Psychological Studies and the Lessons They Teach is rated 5.0 out of 5 by 1.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gripping and Profound I loved this course and binged it over 2 days. It was such a great mix of history, cultural context, scholarly and critical assessment without being pedantic, and compelling storytelling that it truly deserves to be its own Netflix docuseries. The studies are a mix of familiar and surprising, old (1930s) and relatively recent (2010s). Rather than dwell on the macabre, however, Prof. Polk has this wonderful way of closing with the repercussions for the lead researchers and how it led to changes in the field itself. He doesn’t shy away from psychology’s own research crisis today, but has some ideas on how to improve it. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2020-07-26
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