5 Horrific Psychological Experiments – #4: The Monster Study

POSTED May 19, 2009
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Let’s just carry right along with the child abuse theme established yesterday by the Little Albert experiment, shall we? How about orphans; why not?

The 1939 experiment conducted in Davenport, Iowa on a group of kids at an orphanage that came to be known as the Monster Study, wasn’t conducted by a psychologist. Dr. Wendell Johnson was a speech pathologist who wanted to get to the bottom of the underlying cause of stuttering. Johnson didn’t subscribe to the prevailing belief that stuttering was an inborn (and thus uncorrectable) trait. Admirable enough; he wanted to help. It was just the whole experiment that puts Johnson somewhere between Gomer Pyle and Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros.

Johnson requisitioned 22 orphans and split them into two groups — stutterers and non stutterers. Not all of the kids (only half) in the stuttering group actually had stutters. The non stutterers received praise for their normal speech patterns, while the stuttering group received negative reinforcement. They were constantly put on edge through reminders to avoid stuttering.

So you’ve probably been jabbed in the gut by the punchline by now. The kids who didn’t have stutters in the stuttering group sure did by the time the experiment was concluded. Three of the five kids who’d actually had stutters were worse than before. Having established that a negative focus on stuttering makes the condition worse, and having proven it’s a developmental rather than innate trait, Johnson put his clipboard beneath his arm and drove off as 11 stuttering orphans chased after him shouting, “W-w-wait!”

In his defense, Johnson’s work helped countless stutterers who came after the experiment. There was one slight problem, though. Despite efforts to reverse the process, the kids who developed stutters couldn’t shake them. So they had that going for them: no parents and a nice little lifelong struggle courtesy of Dr. Johnson.

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