Writer Morton Hunt has a particular interest in the behavioral sciences. In this article for New York Times Magazine he takes a look at the long-debated “morality of research in which human beings may be subjected to unpleasant and possibly harmful experiences that they have not agreed to undergo…”.
Hunt recounts the following story about an eager but naive research participant and a deceitful social psychologist:
“On a spring evening two years ago, Steve Kaufman, a wiry 18-yearold whose plain-featured intensity reminds one of Dustin Hoffman, hurried across the Stanford University campus to what he thought would be an interesting and enjoyable experience. He was headed for Jordan Hall, where the department of psychology is housed and where he had been receiving training as a hypnotic subject, preparatory to an experiment scheduled for that night.
The experiment was the core of a research project being carried out by Prof. Philip Zimbardo. A social psychologist with a flair for imaginative experimentation, Zimbardo was a campus celebrity and well known in his profession.
What Steve expected to take place that evening would take place – but so would much more, for he was wholly unaware of the real but covert goal of the research project. This was to train Steve and other unsuspecting volunteers in becoming good hypnotic subjects until, in the final session, Zimbardo could tell them, while they were in a trance, that afterward they would be partially deaf but would not remember that this had been hypnotically induced. Steve would be a ”naive” subject – and would therefore react to his deafness as if it were genuine.”
Research experiments such as these subsequently led to federal regulations setting parameters and boundaries on the “permissible use of human beings in social-psychological research projects funded by major agencies.”
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