Manic Monday: The Monster Experiment

We have probably all met or known of someone who had a stuttering problem. We now know that it is not necessarily a genetic problem, one that cannot be gotten over.

Dr. Wendell Johnson, a speech pathologist in the 1930s, wanted to show that the prevailing stuttering theories of his time—that stuttering was a genetic issue and not something that could be gotten over—was wrong.

Dr. Johnson he thought that labelling of children as stutterers could make them worse, and in some cases cause children to start stuttering. To prove his point, he thought up an experiment that today is called the ‘Monster Study’.

Sounds scary.

Twenty-two young orphans were recruited as participants, and divided into two groups. The first were labelled ‘normal speakers’ and the second ‘stutterers’. Very importantly, only half of the group labelled stutterers showed signs of stuttering.

Throughout the experiment, the normal speakers were given positive encouragement. Some of the things told to them were, “You’ll outgrow [the stuttering], and you will be able to speak even much better than you are speaking now. . . . Pay no attention to what others say about your speaking ability for undoubtedly they do not realize that this is only a phase.”

However, the issue of the experiment lies in the treatment of the other group. They were told things like, “The staff has come to the conclusion that you have a great deal of trouble with your speech. . . . You have many of the symptoms of a child who is beginning to stutter. You must try to stop yourself immediately. Use your will power. . . . Do anything to keep from stuttering. . . . Don’t ever speak unless you can do it right. You see how [the name of a child in the institution who stuttered severely] stutters, don’t you? Well, he undoubtedly started this very same way.”

The group labelled stutters were made more self-conscious than they already were of their stuttering. They were told about stuttering, told to take care not to repeat unnecessary words. Teachers and other staff at the orphanage were recruited—unknowingly—to reinforce the stuttering label (the researchers told the teachers and staff that the whole group were stutterers).

Of the six normal children of the stuttering group, FIVE began to stutter after the negative therapy. Of the five children who had already been stuttering, THREE became worse. Only ONE child of the normal group had more speech problems after the experiment.

To the researchers’ credit, once they realized the power of their experiment, they tried to undo the damage. However, it was to no avail. The effects of labeling the children as stutterers were permanent.

There were some ethical issues to this experiment:

  1. The children were never told they had been part of the experiment, and only found out 6 decades later when a newspaper revealed things
  2. The teachers and staff at the orphanage were misled about the study, and were never debriefed
  3. The study was never published. This is an issue because without publication, findings cannot prove beneficial

The University of Iowa, where Dr. Johnson was working at the time of the experiment, issued a formal apology 36 years after Dr. Johnson’s death. They called the experiment regrettable and indefensible.

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