Breakthroughs in science never cease to amaze us. Understanding the motivations behind someone’s behavior and where these thoughts, feelings, and actions arise from helps all of humanity as a species. Psychologists’ work can solve very large questions. But a relentless desire for answers can also lead experts down a deplorable path.
Scientists have used a number of very questionable methods throughout the years to delve into the murky depths of the human mind. Desperate to conquer humanity’s mysteries, they weren’t afraid to sacrifice the mental or physical well-being of a subject in order to gain information for their experiment. This sometimes allowed them to get their solutions — but at terrible costs.
1. In the 1970s, New York City psychiatrist wanted to know if a person’s personality is more based on genetically inherited traits or developed through someone’s experiences with their environment. The expert devised a twisted experiment to answer the nature vs. nurture debate.
National Library of Medicine
Sponsored by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, experts took twins and triplets who were up for adoption, split them up, and studied them as they grew up with their new families. Neither the children nor their adoptive parents knew.
2. The Japanese Imperial Army started an operation called Unit 731. The name may sound innocuous, but the atrocities committed by the project definitely weren’t. This unit conducted medical and biological tests on Chinese civilians.
From infecting wells with typhoid to dosing people with poison gas, Unit 731 tried all kinds of horrific things on innocent people. Additionally, the United States worked with Japan after WWII to help keep this a secret, to form a Cold War alliance.
3. Two speech pathologists from the University of Iowa were curious about what caused children to stutter. Their hypothesis was that it was something started by a child’s anxiety about talking, and they decided to try to test this theory.
So, starting in 1939, the two went to orphanages and told children there that they would start stuttering if they weren’t careful. This made the normal children very anxious and lose all excitement about trying to talk to their peers.
4. In the early 1800s, it was difficult for medical professionals to get bodies for dissection. Until 1830, they were only allowed to use bodies of executed criminals. Things were tough. And when things get tough, immoral people can worm their way into these tough situation to try to make fast cash.
William Hare and William Burke were those kind of people. They suffocated 12 men who stayed at Hare’s boardinghouse and sold the fresh corpses to the physicians. The two were eventually caught, and Burke was hanged for murder.
5. Ever heard of J. Marion Sims? This man is known as the father of gynecology, which seems harmless enough. Actually no, it’s definitely not. He earned that title by performing surgeries on slaves — all without anesthesia.
Sims was repairing fistulas, a condition in which there’s a tear between the vagina and bladder causing incontinence. The patient’s condition was fixed after the procedure, but none of them ever consented to be treated in the first place.
6. In the 1940s, the U.S. government tag-teamed with Guatemala to conduct syphilis experiments on prisoners and patients in mental asylums without their consent. There’s definitely a theme emerging here.
Prisoners were paid to have sex with sex workers who already had syphilis, or to get their genitals scrubbed and then swabbed with syphilis bacteria. Either way, the methodology was just awful.
Internet Archive Book Images, flickr
7. The syphilis fun didn’t stop there. In 1932, 399 syphilis-infected black men in Alabama received fake treatments for their “bad blood” from doctors. Physicians wanted to study them to see the impacts of untreated syphilis and how the disease rampaged someone’s body.
Who sponsored this deplorable study? The United States Public Health Service. This experiment went on until the 1970s and was only stopped because someone inside of the government blew the whistle on the entire thing. Gotta love the government.
8. Few atrocities can match the Stanford Prison Experiment. This is one of the most famous experiments in psychology, beginning when Philip Zimbardo was extremely curious about how regular people reacted when put into distressing situations.
To test this, he paid Stanford students to act as guards and prisoners in a simulated prison environment at Stanford University. The guards very quickly embodied their roles and abused the prisoners for their personal enjoyment.
In June 2018, it was revealed that Zimbardo encouraged the guards to be aggressive to their prisoners. And a few of the prisoners only pretended to have emotional breakdowns so they could leave the study early.
9. The Nazis conducted absolutely terrible experiments on their Jewish prisoners. One of the most famous of these horrific scientists was Josef Mengele. His goal was to prove the superiority of the white race over all others.
In this mission of superiority, Josef delighted in testing twins’ connections in a number of disgusting ways. One twin would be given a variety of medical experiments like forced insemination or amputation. The experiment proved little.
Meanwhile, America’s CIA is full of twisted secrets. Over the course of what’s known as “Operation Mongoose,” the CIA made dozens of failed attempts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. These botched hits ranged from exploding cigars, hiring the mafia, and poisoning milkshakes.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
2. Making a Maniac: After his arrest, Ted Kaczynski – better known as the Unabomber – claimed that CIA experimentation pushed him to commit his violent acts. As it turns out, the CIA did in fact sponsor a controversial Harvard study in which Kaczynski participated.
3. Cat-tastrophe: War is all about thinking one step ahead of your enemies, but the U.S. took a huge step backward with “Operation Acoustic Kitty.” The CIA attempted to use hearing-augmented cats to eavesdrop on the Soviets, but the cats proved easily distracted and the program was scrapped.
4. Sketchy Skies: When Air America was announced as the U.S.’s newest commercial airline, frequent flyers couldn’t wait to book a flight. In reality, Air America was just a front for the CIA’s covert operations in Indochina, for which it smuggled soldiers, weapons, and even drugs during the Vietnam War.
5. The Korean Gamble: In an attempt to sow seeds of rebellion among the people of North Korea, the CIA began a covert operation in the 1950s that saw dozens of agents airdrop into the country. Sadly, these operatives were never seen or heard from again.
6. Closed For Maintenance: At the height of the Cold War, CIA officials constructed a missile testing device near India’s Nanda Devi mountain in an attempt to monitor Chinese missiles. Then they lost it. The agency actually closed the mountain for nine years to search for the device, though to this day it hasn’t been found.
7. The Little Blue Pill: To gain vital information from an impotent Afghan chieftain, the CIA actually offered him thousands of Viagra pills in exchange for the intel. With his, erm, “performance issues” resolved, the chieftain spilt the beans without hesitation.
8. Mine’s Bigger: The Cold War might not have been fought on the battlefield, but shots were definitely fired in the bedroom. One U.S. plot proposed strategically placing oversized American condoms labeled “Medium” throughout Russia in an attempt to demoralize Soviet men.
9. Cut it Out, Flea!: The CIA is notorious for its use of unorthodox torture methods, but one technique stands out above the rest. A former interrogator revealed that The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music is so bass-heavy that when listened to endlessly it can drive a person to madness.
10. A Most Generous Benefactor: The Cold War wasn’t just about building missiles: it was also about culture. That’s why in order to assert the dominance of the American way of life, the CIA invested in abstract, free-thinking artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
The Double Negative
11. A Likely Story: In 2013, after years of speculation, the CIA confirmed the existence of an area north of Las Vegas known as Area 51. It claimed the area was just a testing site for top-secret aerial surveillance programs, but we all know what they’re really keeping there…
12. Pick a Drug, Any Drug: After creating the hallucinogenic drug LSD in the 1960s, the CIA needed a way to test subjects without their knowledge. Enter magician John Mulholland, who taught agents how to spike drinks using sleight of hand.
13. The Trouble With Doubles: After stealing a top-secret spy satellite manual and selling it to the Russians, technical engineer William Kampiles attempted to reconcile with CIA officials by offering to become a double agent. They weren’t interested, and Kampiles was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
14. And the Oscar Goes To: The CIA isn’t known for its movie making, but after George Orwell died in 1950 the agency purchased the rights to his novel Animal Farm. The 1954 film adaptation was noticeably more anti-communist than the book, with all communist characters portrayed as pigs.
15. Paper Trail Fail: CIA agents are masters at covering up their tracks, but in 2003, two covert operatives were busted out of pure carelessness. While posing as business executives, the agents swiped their frequent flyer cards at every hotel and restaurant they visited and eventually led Italian authorities right to them.
16. Secrets on Secrets: Everyone knows that the CIA keeps its secrets closely guarded, but if you ever find yourself at its Langley, Virginia, headquarters you can actually walk right up to one. Encrypted on the faces of the statue Kryptos are four riddles, and after almost 30 years the fourth remains unsolved.
17. Not a Good Look: The crimes committed by Nazi scientists during WWII were inhumane, but that didn’t stop the CIA from bringing those scientists to America. With their help, the CIA hoped to create its own special brand of brainwashing techniques under “Operation Paperclip.”
Those Conspiracy Guys
18. C-I With An A: Even CIA agents need their coffee, so it’s no surprise that the Langley HQ boasts its own Starbucks. The baristas at “Store Number 1” are trained to recognize every agent’s face, so there’s never a need to reveal one’s identity for the sake of a macchiato.
19. No-See-Um: Dubbed “the best museum you’ll never get to see,” the CIA’s official museum in Langley is packed with some of the agency’s most incredible – and controversial – inventions. Unfortunately, only CIA agents are allowed inside.
20. Fearless, Faceless: Like other military branch headquarters, the CIA HQ features a memorial wall to honor those agents that have died in the line of duty. However, of the 129 stars on the wall, only 91 are named; the other 38 chose to take their secret identities to the grave.
S. Evan Townsend
21. It’s been infiltrated: The CIA, FBI, and even the NSA have all been infiltrated by foreign spies at various points over the years, but — as far as we know — no such thing has ever happened to the Secret Service. Washington D.C.s security detail, however, like the CIA, is certainly imperfect…
22. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the same day that he founded the Secret Service: This certainly seems like a bit of cruel irony, though the Secret Service wasn’t created to protect the president. It took another 36 years before Congress added that to the agency’s duties!
23. The Secret Service was originally responsible for preventing counterfeit currency: The agency was initially part of the Treasury Department, largely because as much as one third of American currency following the Civil War was counterfeit.
24. The Secret Service paved the way for the FBI: In 1908, among the first crop of “Bureau of Investigation” (as the FBI was originally known) recruits, were nine agents who had simply been pulled directly from the Secret Service.
25. The Secret Service isn’t only located in Washington D.C.: In fact, every state has its own Secret Service field office (there are nine in California alone). The Secret Service is located in territories like Puerto Rico and Guam, as well as a few foreign nations, such as Russia, too.
26. Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to keep his disability a secret for years thanks to the Secret Service: Polio caused him to spend his terms in a wheelchair, but he didn’t want the world to view him differently because of it. Unseen to the public, agents went to great lengths to abide by this request, even going so far as to destroy paparazzi cameras.
27. Presidents have kept affairs under wraps thanks to the aid of the Secret Service: The fact that some presidents had mistresses has been an open secret for decades. They remained “secret” for so long, however, because agents were so skilled in sneaking these women in and out of the White House undetected.
Cecil W. Stoughton / Wikimedia Commons
28. The current president isn’t the only one protected by the Secret Service: Protection covers former presidents and their families (especially including children of former presidents who are under 16 years old), and foreign heads of state visiting the United States.
29. Agents can track the President’s movements thanks to pressure pads under the carpet: Even when they’re standing outside the Oval Office, the Secret Service still knows exactly where the President is at all times thanks to this technology!
Pete Souza / Wikimedia Commons
30. The Secret Service once allowed an armed man in an elevator with President Obama: Though the Secret Service eventually removed the man from the elevator, he still managed to spend several minutes with the President before they discovered he was carrying a weapon.
31. A car that once belonged to Al Capone was repurposed for Franklin D. Roosevelt by the Secret Service: World War II took a toll on the nation’s finances, so when the Secret Service needed a new armored car, they temporarily used one they’d acquired from the notorious gangster.
32. The Secret Service has their own “backup” Air Force One: In case there’s a major problem that requires a different course of action, a similar plane to Air Force One can drop off the president in secret locations that only the Secret Service knows about.
33. The Secret Service’s forensics team is extremely advanced: In particular, the agency claims the biggest ink library on the planet! That, combined with their high-tech audiovisual technology, has helped them fight all sorts of crimes.
34. It wasn’t illegal to threaten the President of the United States until 1917: That same year, it also became illegal to threaten the President’s family, and the same for the Vice President. Then, in 1922, President Warren G. Harding established a special police force that would protect the whole White House; it was eventually folded into the Secret Service.
connormah / Wikimedia
35. They don’t wear sunglasses for the reasons you think: Rumor has it that Secret Service agents cover their eyes to ensure that potential shooters can’t tell where they’re looking. In reality, they’re just trying to protect their eyes from the sun like the rest of us!
36. Before the President arrives at a hotel, it needs to be thoroughly examined: Even if someone is determined to be a threat to important diplomats in the vaguest way possible, they’d be asked not to work at the hotel during the President’s stay.
U.S Department of State / Wikimedia Commons
37. President Ronald Reagan played Secret Service agents four times during his film career: Plenty of famous actors have played agents, including Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas, and Clint Eastwood, but only one of them would someday be protected by those agents as a real-life president!
38. Only one Secret Service agent in history has died trying to save the President’s life: During an attack against President Truman by two Puerto Rican nationalists in 1950, three agents were shot, including Private Leslie Coffelt.
AaronY / Wikimedia Commons
39. Secret Service wards pick their code names: The president and his family members choose their own code names, and they share the same first letter, such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Renaissance” to her husband’s “Renegade.” Other code names have included “Tumbler” (George W. Bush), “Lancer” (John F. Kennedy), and “Searchlight” (Richard Nixon).
40. The Secret Service has foiled four different assassination attempts since John F. Kennedy’s assassination: The first was George Wallace, who at the time was running for President while serving as governor of Alabama. Then, there were two assassination attempts against Gerald Ford, and finally one against Ronald Reagan.
41. There is an “Electronic Crimes Task Force” to study cases of hacking: This may be a relatively recent addition to the Secret Service’s usual purview, but hacking poses a very real threat to the government, so it’s only natural that the Secret Service would have its own experts.
42. A great deal of people have been targeted by the Secret Service for fraud: The agency has its own special “most wanted” list for these kinds of crimes, including one suspect who is believed to have used stolen identities to pilfer over $21 million!
U.S. Secret Service / Wikimedia Commons
43. A sex scandal in Columbia spelled trouble for some Secret Service agents: One of the more bizarre events of the agency’s history occurred in 2012 when a Columbian prostitute said that she’d been offered access to sensitive information in exchange for her services!
44. Secret Service agents have been known to cut loose, too: Agents attending a retirement party for one of their own nearly lost their lives when they got too close to a suspected bomb… while driving drunk.
45. It’s sometimes up to the Secret Service to protect people with adversarial relationships with the United States: Despite the fact that people like former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are considered by some to be enemies of the U.S., that doesn’t change the agency’s responsibility to protect them when they visit.
Daniella Zalcman / Wikimedia Commons
46. A life in the Secret Service means sacrificing much of your personal life: Considering the fact that the agency requires long, often inconvenient hours, it should come as little surprise that agents’ home lives are often difficult. Thus, the divorce rate among members is high.
Cordell and Cordell / Flickr
47. Lyndon B. Johnson was known for being cruel to his agents: President Johnson was reputedly quite abrasive to staff members in a number of ways, but in one instance, he asked an agent to protect him as he used the bathroom—before urinating on the man’s leg. “That’s all right, son,” he allegedly said. “It’s my prerogative.”
Yoichi Okamoto / Wikimedia Commons / YouTube
48. The presidential motorcade has a “death car”: It might sound like something out of a Mad Max movie, but sadly, it’s real. The origin of this vehicle lies in JFK’s assassination, when lack of proper footage made it difficult to crack the case. Today, the death car constantly films the rear of the President’s car, just in case…
49. Secret Service agents don’t always wear suits: While they’ll almost carry firearms or some other kind of weapon, agents sometimes dress differently for different occasions, even if that just means a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.
50. Secret Service agents watched over George W. Bush’s daughters while they went out partying: Twins Barbara and Jenna Bush once used fake IDs to get into a number of bars in Austin, Texas. Before they were arrested, the Secret Service removed them.
51. In 2012, the Secret Service failed to stop an intruder who jumped over the White House fence: The intruder, who had left his family a suicide note, was stopped and detained—but not until after he made it inside the White House!
Nnimow / Wikimedia Commons
52. There are three distinct phases to the career of a Secret Service agent: The first six to eight years of an agent’s tenure are spent in an office. Then, they spend four to seven years on protective detail, before spending the rest of their career back in a field office or transferred to headquarters.
53. The Presidential car is named “The Beast”: This customized Cadillac has enough protective measures, communication devices, and other defensive modifications to make the Batmobile blush. Apparently, it’s all necessary to keep the President safe!
54. Secret Service agents used to let Jackie Kennedy bum cigarettes off of them: Preferring to keep her smoking habit a secret, First Lady Kennedy usually took cigarettes from an agent named Clint Hill, who was frequently her driver and was even in the car with her when her husband was assassinated.