Ethical Principles of Psychologists: The Monster Study

In the early 1900s many speech therapists and pathologists believed in the mainstream theory that held that stuttering was caused by cerebral imbalances. In 1939 Wendell Johnson, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, decided to investigate the cause of stuttering in children. Johnson conducted the research through Mary Tudor who was one of the students in his graduate class. The subjects of the experiment were twenty two (22) orphan children selected from institutions in Iowa none of whom were aware of the objective of the research but were made to believe that they were going to receive speech therapy. The subjects of the research were divided into two groups: the treatment (I) group and the control (II) group. Ten of the twenty two orphans selected originally had speech problems and had been marked as stutterers before the experiment begun. Five of the ten stutterers were placed in the treatment group (IA) who were made to believe that there was no problem with their speech at all while the other five students with speech problems were placed in the control group (IB) and were told that indeed they had challenges in speaking. The remaining twelve children participating in the study were randomly selected from the population of normally fluent orphans. Six of the children were placed in group IIA and were informed that they were beginning to develop speech problems such as stuttering. The other six subjects in group IIB who were fluent speakers were treated as such and praised for their good oratory skills. The Monster Study was characterized by ethical malpractices contrary to the standards and codes that guide the practice of research in psychology today.

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The above experiment was conducted between May and January 1939 and involved talking sessions with each of the children. The children in group IIA who originally didn’t have stuttering problems began to develop other psychological problems though they didn’t stutter. They were afraid to engage in conversation or read aloud in class and this led to a decline in their academic performance. Other children developed anxiety and self esteem issues. Psychologists termed Wendell’s study as the “monster study” because they felt that he had no regard for the welfare of the orphan children by exposing them to such a study. Essentially, Wendell was trying to induce stuttering to children with normal speech through negative speech therapy and to test whether stutterers would improve their speech through positive reinforcement (Gretchen, 2003). This experiment has been deemed unethical by many psychology researchers worldwide.

The Monster study violated some of the General Principles outlined American Psychological Association to provide guidance to psychologists in their work. The manner in which experiment was contrary to Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence which encourages psychologists to ensure that their research benefits their subjects and does no harm to them. This study eventually led to some of the children developing psychological problems showing that it was indeed harmful to some of the research subjects. Principle C: Integrity, which states that “psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty and truthfulness in … psychology”, was also not upheld in the Monster Study. The participants of the monster study were made to believe that they were going to receive speech therapy during the experiment. However, the researchers’ objectives were to induce stuttering to children with normal speech and try to correct the speaking problems in the stutterers. In this case Wendell and Tudor deceived their subjects and led to long term negative impacts in the health of some of the children. Another principle violated in this experiment was Principle D: Justice, which upholds that psychologists should be fair in their practice and ensure that all persons can access and benefit from the psychologists’ work equally. In this experiment, Wendell worked with subjects drawn from orphanages in Iowa. His choice of test subjects is questionable being that he chose extremely vulnerable individuals who were actually easily available and accessible in the institutions. To be fair and/or minimize bias in the experiment, some of the children should have at least been randomly selected from normal families or households.

Besides the General Principles discussed above, there were some standards for research were also violated in the Monster Study. In any experiment conducted by a psychologist, he or she is required to obtain informed consent from the individuals participating in the experiment. This means that each of the subjects should only agree to participate after having been fully and truthfully briefed on the intentions of the experiment and what is required of them as subjects. Wendell and Tudor deceitfully engaged the children who participated in the study without accurate knowledge of its objectives. In this case since the subjects were also young and may not have understood the intentions of the experiment, the researchers should have considered the children’s best interests before involving them in the study. Another standard that wasn’t achieved in Wendell’s study was that of privacy and confidentiality. In various documents reporting about the Monster study, remarks made by Tudor to the students and some of the names of the students have been mentioned and exposed to the public domain. Disclosures of research findings to the public also require consent from the participant (American Psychological Association, 2014).

In spite of the aforementioned ethical violations the Monster study can still be redesigned to achieve the desired results using a more ethical approach. The first step should be to diversify the population pool of the test subjects to ensure fairness, equal participation and eliminate the bias that was evident in the initial experiment. For instance, children participating in the experiment should be drawn from both orphanages and households with a strong family bond where the children have been exposed to a good and loving environment. Secondly, the true and objective of the experiment should be communicated to the children in a language that they can understand. Parents and other legal guardians should also be informed of the research objectives prior to the commencement of the study so that they can give their consent. Lastly, rather than using negative and degrading remarks on the children in groups IB and IIA, the researchers should have employed other means to prove their hypothesis. For instance, to correct the stuttering problem as a researcher I would try speaking to the children slowly and in short sentences, pausing before responding and avoid interrupting the children as they speak to produce the desired changes. I would refrain from negative comments that most definitely harm the child in the long run. In addition, other than trying to induce stuttering to fluent children, I would focus on investigating other causes of speech impairment such as genetics, delayed child development, neurophysiology and family dynamics (Scholastic’s Parent and Child, 2014).


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