The so-called ‘Monster Study’ on children’s stuttering qualifies for this series on weird psychology on three grounds. First it had extremely shaky (practically non-existent) ethical standards. Second its results were never published for fear it would be likened to experiments carried out by the Nazis (Rothwell, 2003). Finally, in historical context, its findings were dramatic.
Challenging theories of stuttering
Dr. Wendell Johnson, a speech pathologist, wanted to show that the prevailing theories about the causes of stuttering were wrong. During the 1930s it was thought that stuttering had an organic or genetic cause. This meant you were born a stutterer (or not) and little could be done.
Dr Johnson had different ideas. Instead he thought the labelling of children as stutterers could actually make them worse, and in some cases cause ‘normal’ children to start stuttering. To prove his point, he suggested an experiment which has since become known as the ‘Monster Study’.
Power of labelling
Twenty-two young orphans were recruited to participate in the experiment. They were then divided into two groups. The first were labelled ‘normal speakers’ and the second ‘stutterers’. Crucially only half of the group labelled stutterers did actually show signs of stuttering.
During the course of the experiment, the normal speakers were given positive encouragement but it was the treatment of the other group that has made the experiment notorious. The group labelled stutterers were made more self-conscious about stuttering. They were lectured about stuttering and told to take extra care not to repeat words. Other teachers and staff at the orphanage were even unknowingly recruited to reinforce the label as the researchers told them the whole group were stutterers.
Of the six ‘normal’ children in the stuttering group, five began stuttering after the negative therapy. Of the five children who had stuttered before their ‘therapy’, three became worse. In comparison, only one of the children in the group labelled ‘normal’ had greater speech problems after the study.
Realising the power of their experiment, the researchers tried to undo the damage they had done, but to no avail. It seemed the effects of labelling the children stutterers was permanent. This is something the orphans labelled stutterers have had to cope with for the rest of their lives.
Clearly this research raises a number of major ethical concerns.
Case for the defence
- The researchers had the best of intentions – they were motivated to help stutterers of all ages. Indeed Dr. Wendell Johnson was himself a severe stutterer.
- The findings supported Dr Johnson’s theory and contributed to new and successful ways of treating people with stutters.
Case for the prosecution
Despite the researcher’s good intentions, the study fails on any number of ethical dimensions.
- The children were never told they had been involved in a study, until it was revealed by a newspaper over 60 years later.
- The teachers and administrators of the orphanage were also misled about the purpose of the study. This deception was never explained to them.
- The study was never published. Because of this some argue the damage inflicted on the children was even more unethical. All studies must balance the potential risks against the potential benefits. Without publication and dissemination through the academic community, this study’s benefits are reduced.
The final word
This is left to the University of Iowa, where Dr Johnson was working at the time of the experiment. In 2001, 36 years after his death, they issued a formal apology, calling the experiment both regrettable and indefensible (Rothwell, 2003).
This judgement is impossible to argue with.
UPDATE: Six participants in this study have just won a £500,000 settlement against the University of Iowa.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do