The psychology experiment that involved real beheadings

Illustration for article titled The psychology experiment that involved real beheadings

There have been several psychology experiments in history that were unethical enough to precipitate new rules governing experimentation. This, without doubt, should have been one of them. Learn exactly how horribly wrong one man went when he wanted to study facial expressions.


It must have been wonderful to be a psychologist in the first half of the 20th century. It seems you could do anything to people, from traumatizing a baby who was petting a cute little animal to making people believe that they'd killed someone. And then there was Carney Landis, who branched out by doing a little of both. Landis, in 1924, decided that he wanted to find out if all human beings made the same facial expressions in response to the same emotions. He didn't believe that average people could intentionally make the same faces that they naturally made when really reacting to emotions (this turned out to be his most accurate prediction), and so he took steps to simulate people reacting to things that would bring them joy, laughter, curiosity, contentment, physical pleasure, and happy anticipation.

Or that might have been what he did, if there had been any ethical standards that he had to follow. Actually, he decided to evoke emotions like fear, disgust, sadness, and pain, photographing each emotion as it flickered across a person's face. Pain he managed to bring about with electrical shocks. He brought out disgust in people by having them put their hands in a bucket of frogs. And then he grabbed a white rat, and told his subjects that, without any training, they had to behead it.

At this point, it would have been helpful for a review board to step in. If I were on that board my first question would have been, "Exactly what emotion to you think would be brought on by 'rat beheading'?" I'm not a particularly complicated person, but I think that my emotions at having to behead a live, struggling rodent would be, at best, mixed. Fortunately for Landis, if not for either the human subjects or the rats, no one stopped him, including most of the subjects. One third of the people enrolled in the experiment complied, beheading the rat as best they could. If they didn't comply, Landis beheaded the rat for them. Right in front of them. And took a picture.

It was only after all the subjects had stumbled, shaking and retching, out into the daylight again that Landis really studied the photos. He had drawn lines on each subject's face to be able to track the movement of their faces during the experiment. His conclusion? The "natural" expressions that people made, "showed great differences among themselves. In some cases where it was expected, no expression of emotion was present at all." It turns out there is no universal expression for "fear," "pain," or "this guy with a knife just killed something right in front of me be cool be cool." Good to know.

Top Image: Janet Stephens

[Studies of Emotional Reactions, Null Hypothesis.]


Dr Emilio Lizardo

Ah, the good old days. Before pansy ass IRB's and HIC's.