In the years since the FBI’s 1996 capture of Ted Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber, much has been made about the domestic terrorist’s time at Harvard University, which he entered as a gifted 16-year-old freshman in 1958. One year later, during his sophomore year, Kaczynski became part of a controversial and disturbing psychological experiment.
Decades later, after investigators discovered that same youthful genius was now a reclusive murderer responsible for a horrific series of bombings that killed three people and injured 23, close attention would be paid to this brief chapter in his early life.
The study clearly violated today’s ethical standards.
Performed by Henry A. Murray, a professor at the Ivy League school, the three-year study sought to explore the effects of stress on the human psyche – a popular area of study during the Cold War. Murray and his team enlisted 22 Harvard students, each of whom was asked to write a detailed essay in which they summarized their worldview and personal philosophy.
After submitting their essays, each of the students was subjected to what Murray himself described as “vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive” interrogations, during which members of his research team would attack the student subjects’ ideals and beliefs, as gleaned from their essays. The goal was to assess the value of interrogation techniques used by law enforcement and national security agents in the field.
“It’s clearly unethical and violates all of the main ethical principles for psychologists as promulgated by the American Psychological Association,” says Nigel Barber, Ph.D., an evolutionary psychologist who writes a regular column called “The Human Beast: Why We Do What We Do” for Psychology Today and is the author of several books on human behavior.
“Subjects were incompletely informed about the nature of the experiment [and] were tricked, or coerced, into remaining in the experiment. Given that the procedures were designed to ‘break’ enemy agents and render them so damaged that they would be operationally useless, it is reasonable to expect that they would have the same consequences for vulnerable young people who did not have specialized training to resist interrogation.”
The researcher’s reputation has since become tarnished.
Murray is still considered an important researcher and clinician in the field of psychology, and his personality assessments remain a fundamental part of psychological evaluations to this day.
However, his legacy (he passed away in 1988) has been tarnished somewhat by this study, in which Kaczynski was one of the subjects. In fact, the study drew a lot of negative attention in the aftermath of the Unabomber’s arrest as details of his early life emerged.
Earlier research standards were set at the Nuremberg Trials.
Experiments such as Murray’s almost certainly wouldn’t be allowed today under current ethical standards for research – but at the time, it wasn’t considered a violation of any code of research conduct.
According to Dr. Barber, researchers at the time of Murray’s experiment were governed by the Nuremberg Code of research ethics – established at the Nuremberg Trials shortly after the end of World War II – which, though not legally binding, still serves as the basis for ethical standards in research today.
After several infamous cases of human experiments gone awry — most notably, Stanley Milgram’s study in which participants were coerced into believing that they had administered fatal electrocutions to others who had failed to follow their instructions — the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1982 published detailed guidelines on how research should be conducted called “Ethical Principles in the Conduct of Research with Human Subjects.”
Today, “all university research, including experiments on humans, must pass scrutiny of an Institutional Review Board or Ethical Review Panel,” Dr. Barber explains. “These [committees] pore over procedural details and may reverse an approval if ethical problems surface in the course of the research.”
Neither Harvard nor Murray can be blamed for the Unabomber’s deadly attacks.
Although it’s now the widely held view that experiments like Murray’s are unethical and may cause harm to those who participate in them, there’s no direct correlation between Kaczynski’s involvement in the study and his actions later in life as the Unabomber.
“I think it is reasonable to identify this episode as approximately the time around which Kaczynski’s life began to unravel, [but] this might be coincidental,” notes Dr. Barber.
“He was later diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and young adulthood is also the time at which this illness strikes. Even so, he was subsequently hired as an academic mathematician and proved an able researcher. The Harvard experiment was stressful and stress aggravates the symptoms of schizophrenia. Otherwise, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the importance of this experience, or to see it as a major determinant of his anti-science and anti-technology political views… It was just one more personal grudge that he could fit into a paranoid narrative about how the world worked in general, and for him in particular.”