Skip to content

Real Experiments (of Living)

December 7, 2010

Psychology is a relatively new science which only emerged as its own field in the late 1800’s. Its impact was huge, as many, many researchers raced to learn about human brains, thoughts, behaviors, etc. Very quickly, this field yielded a great deal of psychological discoveries in the past century and a half. However, with all of this excitement came many unethical experiments which would never be allowed in today’s research environments.

One of the most memorable experiments is that of “Little Albert” in 1920. The behaviorist John Watson wanted to prove that all human behavior, even emotions, were a product of learning and conditioning. In his experiments, he used a little orphan boy named Albert to test if the emotional fear response was learned. In his experiments, he allowed Albert play with a white laboratory rat, and Albert showed no fear of the rat. Watson would then make a loud noise while he was playing with the rat, and Albert would begin to cry. Albert became conditioned to fear the rat, and he even began to fear similar white, fluffy objects like cotton balls, bunnies, even a Santa Claus mask! Watson never unconditioned Little Albert of the fear, and so Little Albert lived on with the effects of this experiment (although we do not know how much of an effect they had).

Another famous experiment involving human subjects was Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiment in 1961. In this experiment he had participants sit in a separate room from a man hooked to electrodes, and the participant would have to shock the man every time he got an answer wrong in a small quiz. The shocks increased with severity as the experiment went on, the last button being labeled “XXX.” During the experiment, the man getting “shocked” (who was of course part of the experiment) would yell out that he was in pain, for them to stop shocking him, and that he was having pains in his chest. At one point he even stopped responding completely. The participants, hesitant to go on after these episodes, were convinced by the experimenter to continue, and many of them became very emotionally disturbed by the process. They felt as if they were being forced to injure another human being.

*Begin watching around 8:00.

Although both of these experiments yielded wonderful discoveries into the field of psychology, they came at a cost. They mentally disturbed their human participants. Since then, experiments using human subjects must now follow certain guidelines as defined by the American Psychological Association. These experiments would not be allowed today.

The question I ask is, would Mill support these “unethical” experiments? If we look at Mill’s harm principle we can gain a little insight:

The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.

According to this principle, Mill believed that as long as no direct harm was being done, then said actions would be permissible because they would be furthering the ideas of the society as a whole. Mill’s definition of direct harm is the physical scope of the word. The subjects were not being physically hurt; instead, Albert was merely being scared, and the participants in Milgram’s study were just being pressured. To Mill, neither of these instances would constitute real harm because they were simply emotional disturbances, not physical. He would argue that these scenarios would not significantly affect the participants’ abilities to live their lives as before. (Although, for Albert, there may have been some long-term effects.) Not only would Mill have supported these psychological experiments, he would have loved them! He would have loved them because they created new theories, and they provided us with new ideas and different knowledge to either adopt, or argue against.

Mill’s support for these “experiments” could also be argued by his ideas of “experiments of living” because he argues that we can learn from others’ failed experiments of living. Although this theory is based on the freedom of the individual, this same principle be used to argue the idea that despite the fact that a few people were “harmed” by these experiments, they benefited our larger knowledge as a society, and furthered all of us. A few sacrifices do not matter in the grand scheme of things because we can learn from them. Do you agree that Mill might apply this argument? What other theorists might agree about “sacrifices”?

Even though the field of psychology provides many instances of unethical treatment of participants, these experiments were able to teach us a lot of about human behavior and the mind. Do you think these experiments, although harmful, were worth it? Do you think Mill would think they were? What about the idea of “sacrificing” a few? Do you agree?

  1. eghat2 permalink
    December 7, 2010 11:38 PM

    I think that Mill would not support the experiments done on little Albert. As you discussed, Mill draws the line in an individual’s freedom with what is commonly known as the harm principle, which says “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.” In other words, one can not do something to someone else that makes it so that they can not continue living their life as they had before.
    I argue that the way in which the experiment was done on Little Albert, conditioning him to be afraid of white rats, and for that matter, anything white and fluffy, affected the way he viewed these things for the rest of his life. Is it possible that through psychological treatment this could have helped “Little Albert’s” psychological condition as he grew up? I think that it could have. However, I think that this possibility goes farther than Mill intended; I do not think Mill would think that scientists have the freedom to do such experiments, if the person on which they are done requires treatment in order to return to their original state of living, rather than continuing on as they had before.

  2. rhampton27 permalink
    December 8, 2010 11:50 AM

    I found this blog post very interesting. I think that it is hard to say what Mill’s stance on these experiences of psychology would be. On one hand, he seems to voice against the harming of others. The quote in this blog reflects the fact that you “must not make [yourself] a nuisance to other people”. In the case of baby Albert, and the people in the shocking experiment, it is fair to argue that they were harmed, regardless of the fact that it was mental, not physical harm. On the other hand, Mill had his own account of human reason and psychology. He was interested in explaining human motivation and action. We learned previously that Mill promotes of freedom of speech so that truth may arise. Perhaps he would support these experiences in the hopes that they will lead to the discovery of truth. Due to his own theories of psychology, he may have found these experiments useful to support or refute his own beliefs. This link has a lot of interesting information over Mill and his stance on not only political philosophy, but also his stance on science:

  3. Eric Ju permalink
    December 8, 2010 4:05 PM

    I really enjoyed this post and how you incorporated psychology experiments with Mill’s idea. When taking any introductory psychology class, these two experiments would definitely be mentioned. On that note however, Mill would never approve of these experiments. Although you state that no physical harm was done to the patients, according to the harm principle, the participants would not be able to live their lives as before. This is true especially in the case of little Albert, his classically conditioned fear of furry white rats would in no way help him. Mental harm should in no way considered less dangerous than physical harm.
    I also believe Mill would not approve of the ethics of the experiment. Like you said, the American Psychological association would never approve of these experiments. For the little Albert experiment he was far too young. The welfare of human participants must always be considered. Systematic desensitization is an important step in the aftermath of psychology experiments where the effects of the experiment would wear off. But such a process was never administered to little Albert. Mill supports the idea of experiments of living, but I believe the harm principle would ultimately make him disapprove of these experiments.

    • blanchc permalink
      December 8, 2010 7:44 PM

      I agree with you. Also, I believe that the issue of choice should be brought up. Regardless of the amount of harm he suffered, Little Albert didn’t have the choice to participate in the experiment in which he was being harmed. The participants in the other experiment, however, had the option to stop if they chose to. Any harm they experienced was somewhat self-inflicted. In addition, after the experiment they were let in on the fact that they were not actually harming someone, whereas Little Albert was never actually never deconditioned to his fear of white fluffy things.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: