Using Children in Psychological Experiments: What’s the Cost?

Psychology is the study of human behavior and the brain, something that’s intangible. Studies and their results are key to being taken seriously in the science community. Experiments are key for these studies, and sometimes the questions are based around vulnerable participants. Children and adolescents are placed in morally reprehensible situations, all in the name of science. It is argued over whether the experiment and the results that came from it justifies those who were harmed in the process. It was not until recent history that we have taken notice, and claim, of the actions in the scientific community regarding experiments. Psychologists also have codes of conduct which they must follow in order to protect the participants involved in research as well as the credibility of the psychologist and psychology as a whole. 

It is hard to imagine people participating in a case study unknowingly in today’s society, but it wasn’t too long ago that horrific unethical ones were being conducted. One that stuck with me was the John/Joan case. In the 1960s, psychologist and sexologist John Money, who was employed at the John Hopkins Hospital, prompted the gender reassignment of Reimer. Reimer who was born a male, but endured irreparable harm to his penis in a botched circumcision as a child. It was only after the support from Money that persuaded Reimer’s parents to make the decision to raise him as a female. Reimer then underwent gender reassignment surgery and given female genitals. Reimer was actually the very first gender reassignment on a person who was born normally. His name was changed to Brenda, and as Reimer grew up, he received estrogen. Throughout his adolescence, Reimer was never told they he was biologically born a male. He even met with Money routinely and was unaware that he was the experimental subject in his experiment. This caused Reimer to suffer from severe depression and suicidal ideologies from a young age. He didn’t find out the truth until his father told him when he was fifteen years old. The trauma that Money caused a poor innocent child since birth is unfathomable. Reimer’s battle with mental illness ultimately lead to his death, he was only thirty-eight when he committed suicide. 

The John/Joan case is sadly only one of many psychological case studies involving unwilling and unknowing adolescents. Some psychologists are only fixated by the outcome and potential breakthrough in their theory and psychology. To attempt and manipulate someone else and potentially negatively impact the rest of their lives is a position no psychologist or researcher can ever take. Lives have been destroyed all due to data to back up theories. Children like David Reimer never get justice. It is necessary for the scientific community to have ethical rules and guidelines, and limit how far they’re willing to go.


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