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Unethical Research Experiments

An experiment is a particular procedure performed to support, refute, or confirm a hypothesis or theory. Sometimes experiments can suggest the possibility of causing moral and sometimes physical harm to the subjects. However, the experimenters justify these “costs” by the fact that the scientists study such acute social and psychological problems as submission, aggression, conformity, and other social phenomena that are destructive to the psyche of people.

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The problem of choosing between the individual’s rights and the needs of society lies at the heart of this ethical dilemma. In the very beginning, when humanity was probing the ground in various sciences, unethical experiments gave new knowledge. Due to the lack of ethical restrictions, researchers did not define the boundaries of what was permitted. Now the whole world is guided by the recommendations of the American Psychological Association – ACA and APA Code of Ethics. The ethical principles of the code are necessary as they govern the various situations that most psychologists might face in their professional roles.

Considering Landis’s Facial Expression Experiment, the objective was to determine which muscle groups are involved in particular emotions. Landis believed that there are characteristic patterns common to all groups involved in a particular emotion. A group of volunteers from among his students were selected as experimental subjects. Landis decided that facial muscles are responsible for emotions; to evoke different emotions in people, he performed actions that were aggravated each time the results were unsatisfactory (Bizzarro Bazar, 2021). The experiment took a terrible turn when Landis asked each of the test subjects to cut off the head of a laboratory rat. At first, all the subjects refused, but after convincing, two-thirds of the students nevertheless agreed to do this, submitting to the experimenter’s authority.

The experiment runs counter to the basic principles of the ethical code, which proclaim benevolence, justice, responsibility, integrity, and respect for the rights and dignity of people. So, point 1.05 Ethical Violations is the main one when describing this experiment; a clear “violation of ethical norms caused harm” to both people and animals. (Algahtani et al., 2018, p. 831) When Landis, in an attempt to find the truth, forces people to do something against their will, it violates human rights. 3.04 Avoiding Harm is a “gross violation of the ethical code”; due to the experiment, many rats were killed in the most savage mode. (Firmin et al., 2019, p. 42)

Moreover, not all subjects were students: one of the subjects was a 13-year-old boy who ended up in the psychology department as a patient due to psychological problems and high blood pressure. According to point 3.10 Informed Consent, additional consent and an explanation from the boy’s parents should have been required (Artal & Rubenfeld, 2017). 7.02 Descriptions of Experimental Programs were not reported initially; what is more, the experiment rules were changed in the process without warning the subjects. Although Landis did not receive the desired results from the experiment and, in this sense, can be considered a failure, this experiment confirmed how easily people obey authorities, violating their own taboos.

Landis’s experiment is associated in meaning with Milgram’s experiment, conducted 40 years later. It investigated the mechanisms of obedience towards authority in human behavior. The purpose of the experiment was to find out the degree of obedience to an authority figure, which required inflicting suffering on another person. Despite the internal ethical conflict, the participants in the experiment did not dare to disobey the representative of the authorities (Dolinski et al., 2020).

Milgram did not tell the experiment participants its true purpose; he hired dummy actors to play the role of subjects portraying the “students” in this experiment. “Teachers” – real subjects, had to be punished with an electric shock to “students” for incorrect answers. If they found it difficult to turn on the current, the experimenter ordered them to do it, claiming that the conditions of the experiment required this and the responsibility lay with the experimenter. So the test subjects continued to give shocks even when the ward was pretending to be close to death or dead. The results showed that conscientious adults have an apparent willingness to blindly follow authority, and it is hard to imagine how far they can go.

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Suppressing the will with authority, Milgram forced people to go further and further in their actions concerning dummy actors, which violates human rights and does not meet point 3.04 Avoiding Harm. Actions against will, causing harm to a person, as the subject saw it, entailed nervous breakdowns, tantrums, and psychological trauma. 7.02 Descriptions of Experimental Programs were supposed to inform people about the true goals and possible options for developing events for this experiment.

To conclude, comparing the above experiments, a certain similarity can be noted. People were forced to hurt living beings, which was alien to them in ordinary life. Violation of ethical principles can be traced in two analyzed cases; only in Landis’s experiment harm and killing were real in relation to animals. Milgram, on the other hand, used actors who only portrayed pain. In two cases, there was harm to the subjects’ psyche, as there were cases of nervous breakdowns resulting from the experiments. The original goals of the experiments are different, although the results that scientists arrive at are the same. Both experiments were later recognized as unethical, even though the results reveal the mechanisms of human behavior that may be no less relevant in our time.


Algahtani, H., Bajunaid, M., & Shirah, B. (2018). Unethical human research in the field of neuroscience: a historical review. Neurological Sciences, 39(5), 829-834.

Artal, R., & Rubenfeld, S. (2017). Ethical issues in research. Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 43, 107-114.

Bizzarro Bazar. (2021). The Carney Landis Experiment. Web.

Dolinski, D., Grzyb, T., & La Fontaine, M. (2020). The social psychology of obedience towards authority: An empirical tribute to Stanley Milgram. Routledge.

Firmin, M. W., DeWitt, K., Zurlinden, T. E., Smith, L. A., & Shell, A. L. (2019). Differences in competency and qualification requirements between APA and ACA code of ethics. Journal of Integrated Social Sciences, 9(1), 39-56.

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