Shocking Psychological Studies and the Lessons They Teach

Shocking Psychological Studies and the Lessons They Teach
Course Trailer
Lessons from Tuskegee and Facebook
1: Lessons from Tuskegee and Facebook

Today, research with human subjects is guided by a set of three ethical principles of the 1976 Belmont Report, but that was not always the case. In the first lecture of this six-lecture course, Professor Polk explores the famous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and how its ethical violations ultimately led to the development of the Belmont Report and the ethical principles it identified.

32 min
Pushing Good People to Do Bad Things
2: Pushing Good People to Do Bad Things

Why do good people sometimes do bad things? Professor Polk encourages us to grapple with two of the most famous psychological studies on ethics and human psychology: Milgram’s Obedience Study and the Stanford Prison Experiment. Each study offers invaluable lessons about human behavior. Look at the ways that these explorations into the causes of unethical human behavior were, themselves, astonishingly unethical.

31 min
Experimenting on Vulnerable Children
3: Experimenting on Vulnerable Children

Arguably, the most vulnerable people in any population are the children. Childhood development studies can also provide invaluable insights into human psychology. Here, explore two studies where children were the focus: Neubauer’s twin study and Johnson’s “Monster Study” of testing the origins of stuttering. Discover why, according to the Belmont Report’s principles, these “subjects” might be identified more accurately as “victims.”

29 min
Testing Psychochemical Weapons
4: Testing Psychochemical Weapons

Government organizations such as the CIA and military are charged with protecting the public, but in these shocking experiments, vulnerable low-ranking soldiers and psychiatric patients were unwittingly subjected to psychoactive drugs. Uncover the ways in which these observational studies lacked both rigorous scientific design and adherence to any of the Belmont Report’s principles. In fact, the results of these studies often led to hallucinations, paranoia, rage, and even death.

29 min
Assigning Gender and Spying on Sex
5: Assigning Gender and Spying on Sex

Studies of sex and sexual identity present unique ethical challenges for privacy and consent. In the next two studies, Professor Polk takes you into the private world of sexual identity and impulse. The Tearoom Trade Study considers the public identities and private choices of anonymous public sex participants. The John/Joan case explores the sexual identity of a biologically male child raised as a female.

30 min
Current and Future Ethical Challenges
6: Current and Future Ethical Challenges

Science still grapples with the ethics of studying human subjects. Increasingly, data is available about every aspect of human life through our uninhibited interactions with technology. The study of such data sets is affordable, widely generalizable, and easily accessible. But is it ethical? You’ll also discover that the conclusions presented in scientific journals, even under our more rigorous ethical guidelines, may not be as reliable as we thought.

32 min
Thad Polk

Addiction is a modern-day epidemic...If we ever hope to stem the tide, it is imperative that we develop a better understanding of what addiction is and how it works at a neural level.


Carnegie Mellon University


University of Michigan

About Thad Polk

Professor Thad A. Polk is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He received a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Virginia and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Computer Science and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University. He also received postdoctoral training in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

Professor Polk's research combines functional imaging of the human brain with computational modeling and behavioral methods to investigate the neural architecture underlying cognition. Some of his major projects have investigated differences in the brains of smokers who quit compared with those who do not, changes in the brain as we age, and contributions of nature versus nurture to neural organization. Professor Polk regularly collaborates with scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas and at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, where he is a frequent visiting scientist.

Professor Polk regularly teaches on topics ranging from the human mind and brain, to cognitive psychology, to computational modeling of cognition. His teaching at the University of Michigan has been recognized by numerous awards, and he was named to The Princeton Review's list of the Best 300 Professors in the United States.

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