clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Monkey day care

Growing up as a child research subject

As a toddler in 1981 and 1982, I attended a day care with monkeys. Or, perhaps more precisely, I was part of a study in the form of a day care that involved monkeys. I was two, then three. I remember nothing.

I know about it because my dad liked to tease me about it. If I made a mess at dinner, came in with dirty knees and elbows, or was otherwise slobby, he’d say, "It was the monkeys." The idea that I had once played with primates — actually sometimes, I could swear he said "chimps" — became a part of my mental frame of reference, my picture of myself. This, even though as I said, I don’t remember them. I don’t even remember the other children in the program.

Monkey Lead

Image courtesy of The Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron

Monkey day care

Growing up as a child research subject

By Michelle Dean

As a toddler in 1981 and 1982, I attended a day care with monkeys. Or, perhaps more precisely, I was part of a study in the form of a day care that involved monkeys. I was two, then three. I remember nothing.

I know about it because my dad liked to tease me about it. If I made a mess at dinner, came in with dirty knees and elbows, or was otherwise slobby, he’d say, "It was the monkeys." The idea that I had once played with primates — actually sometimes, I could swear he said "chimps" — became a part of my mental frame of reference, my picture of myself. This, even though as I said, I don’t remember them. I don’t even remember the other children in the program.

If I do something clumsy or awkward, a sort of mental flag pops up in my head, and it bears a chimp’s face. Once someone caught me, at 13, picking my nose in school: was that a lingering habit from my time among the chimps? Our family cats hated me because I could not keep my hands off them; even more than usual for a small child, I always wanted to pick them up. Perhaps furry things seemed more welcoming to me than they did to other children. In my early 20s, I caught myself sitting cross-legged at a desk chair. That’s a regular habit of mine, but on that day I happened to be sitting in a courtroom — as counsel at a defense table. I blamed the chimps then, too.

But that’s what I tell myself, of course. I don’t tell others about the chimps much. For one thing, I have a lingering adolescent fear that it makes me sound a little weird. For another, I hardly recall the details of the study.

Then there’s this: "I don’t think I ever said they were chimps," my dad said recently, with a parental casualness I tried not to find infuriating.

I’m quite sure he did, actually, but this is one of those times when it’s safer, as a daughter, to concede that perhaps I made that up. I don’t have it on tape. My parents did not document the experience in any way and can’t really be faulted for it. At the time, they had no inkling that their small daughter would one day grow up to be a journalist who would want to see the transcript, so to speak.

Here is what I do know: my father had heard of the study on a campus flyer and went through the work of enrolling me because, he says, he thought it was an "opportunity."

And so my mother took me twice a week to a building in the southwest corner of the University of Waterloo campus in Ontario, Canada. Inside, she remembers, was a large glass enclosure with a fake tree in it. She says sometimes she recalls seeing monkeys in that tree, but she admits her memory is spotty. (Near as I can tell, the monkeys were probably macaques.) And then she would leave me for a few hours in the care of some students. The way my mother saw it, she got to do her shopping in peace while I got to play with monkeys. Not that she ever witnessed me doing so herself. Once I went through the doors, that was it.

It went on for months.

"You liked it, you were always happy to go," my mother insists. I’ve been asking her about this for years, always hoping she would remember something else about it.

My parents remember few specifics. If I discussed my monkey-day activities with them as a toddler, everyone has forgotten the particulars of the conversation. Neither of my parents can even recall the nature of the study. Psychology, they think. Or sociology. But it was a long time ago, and they didn’t keep the papers they remember signing. Nor did they keep the report my father is vaguely persuaded he got, but then (I hope he’ll forgive me for printing this) he is a man prone to filling the gaps of his memory with things that never happened.

So, this story I’ve always told myself about myself might not be quite true. But as it receded from my parents’ memories, it became imprinted on me. And now I’m stuck with it.

Michelle Dean Intro pic

The author, age two

From the time I arrived at university myself in the late 1990s, I’ve been trying to find any trace of "my" study. I have Google Scholared and PubMedded and Ovided. I even looked at paper indexes, once upon a time. I have scoured the research journals across several different disciplines. Whatever happened to me, no one published a word about it.

I did manage to find a lot of studies about other children, though. Clinical psychological experimentation on children dates back to at least 1919. This was the dawn of the behaviorist school of psychology, an approach that begins from the premise that most psychoanalytic "knowledge" — your Freud and Jung — is hand-waving at best. The problem with psychoanalysis, behaviorists think, is that first-person reporting is unreliable. The objective information about human behavior, they say, comes from direct observation. So behaviorists were great fans of the experiment, and there were no subjects more guileless, or more perfectly primed for observation, than children.

Though their real names were rarely revealed, many of these children became famous among academic circles. Or perhaps infamous, as these studies eventually became legendary less for the findings they contained than for the way subsequent generations came to question the ethics of studying children at all.

John B. Watson, of Johns Hopkins University, was one of the "fathers" of this stuff; Watson would eventually become a household name as a parenting expert. As a behaviorist, he needed to show that parents had a direct, observable effect on their children’s development. Psychologists had already observed that infants don’t have as rich a range of emotional responses to the world as adults do. So Watson set out to see if he could teach one of those responses. Specifically, he wanted to see if he could teach a baby to fear animals.

A Hollywood casting agent could not have chosen a more Platonic-ideal sort of baby for Watson’s experiment than a child known as Albert B. — his real name was kept concealed. Watson couldn’t stop himself from bragging in the paper he’d publish that the child was, "one of the best developed youngsters ever brought to the hospital, weighing 21 pounds at nine months of age." The child’s perfection was not just physical either — he also had a steady mind: "on the whole stolid and unemotional."

Albert B. remained placid when researchers sat him in a room and presented him with a rat, a rabbit, a dog, and a monkey. In fact, in a film of the experiment, he seems quite taken with the rat and rabbit. In the manner of babies, he’s a bit distractible, but not at all afraid of the furry creatures of varying sizes put before him.

So Watson got himself a hammer and a bar of steel. Then he presented Albert B. with the rat again. He hit the bar hard, making a loud noise to startle the child. Albert B. didn’t cry at first — he simply fell forward. When the scientists brought the rat out a second time and tapped the bar again, Albert B. whimpered. Within a few days, Albert B. would visibly tense up and fall over when presented with the animals, even if the loud noise did not accompany them. Often, he would cry spontaneously as soon as he saw them.

This was the result Watson was looking for: he had taught Albert B. to fear rats, and the fear seemed to extend to other small animals. And Albert’s fearful reaction lasted, "although with a certain loss in the intensity of the reaction, for a longer period than one month." Watson published his study with a co-author; it became famous.

Footage of the "Little Albert" experiment

Viewed through our modern lens, a certain aura of heartlessness attaches to a man willing to directly instill a phobia in babies, even to prove a scientific point. In the published findings, Watson comes across as more thoughtful and careful than that. He rationalized that he had chosen Albert B. carefully. "His stability was one of the principal reasons for using him as a subject in this test," he wrote. "We felt that we could do him relatively little harm by carrying out such experiments as those outlined below."

But it can be hard to judge when harm is inflicted on a person’s interior life. Watson didn’t spend much time observing Albert B. The experiment lasted until the infant was a little over a year old, but then Albert B. left the hospital, never to be heard from again.

Watson, believing all his subjects had to be kept anonymous, burned his own papers. The identity of Albert B. stayed lost in those ashes until relatively recently. At first, researchers trying to reconstruct Albert B.’s identity thought perhaps he was a child named Douglas Merritte, who had hydrocephalus and died a few years after the experiment concluded. This never quite seemed to fit, because Watson had been so adamant about Albert B.’s health. Last year, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the strongest candidate yet appeared: Albert Barger. Allegedly, Barger went on to live a life as a salesman and devoted uncle. He never had children and died in 2007. But researchers found a niece who, when interviewed, indeed confirmed that he had harbored a lifelong dislike of dogs and animals. The adult Albert Barger didn’t chalk that up to Watson, though; instead, he told a story of a family dog that had died in front of him when he was young. Having apparently never been told about the experiments, he hadn’t incorporated them into his picture of himself, as I did.

If Albert Barger is the right Albert B., though, his circumstances raise more questions. At the time of the experiment, Pearl Barger, Albert’s mother, worked as a wet nurse at the Harriet Lane Home in Baltimore. It was one of the nation’s first children’s homes; it was also where Watson had his lab. Pearl Barger was just 16, which opens the question of whether or not she gave any meaningful kind of consent to what happened to her child.

In the film of the experiment, the mother isn’t present; the woman you see onscreen is Rosalie Rayner, Watson’s co-researcher and mistress, and eventual wife. That seems to be an appropriate representation of Pearl Barger’s involvement in the experiment: at most, she seems to have offered silent assent. Perhaps there was more. But it is hard to imagine someone in Barger’s position — an unwed mother, a teenager, whose very keep was being paid by the hospital where Watson was a powerful figure — having the full capacity to turn this sort of thing down. It is hard to imagine him sitting down to explain the even very minimal risks of this study to her.

Rat Baby JPEG

Albert B. Image courtesy of The Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron

For much of the 20th century, the subjects of human experimentation were often people like Pearl and Albert: they were at some measurable social disadvantage to the people who were conducting the research. We became aware of the horrible things scientists could be tempted to do by the starker examples of Josef Mengele’s experiments on concentration camp inmates in the Second World War, or the Tuskegee syphilis trials, which were active all the way up to 1972.

Those examples bequeathed us sets of ethical rules to follow. The signature principle of modern research ethics is the belief that a subject must be able to consent to an experiment before the trial proceeds. The first line of the Nuremberg Code, for example, holds that: "The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential." All the codes that followed — the Belmont Report, the various codes used by research universities — also enshrine that principle. This is as true of psychological research as it is of more traditional avenues of medicine. Gradually we have developed it into what we call, everywhere from emergency rooms to Grey’s Anatomy, "informed consent," though it can be difficult to pin down exactly what’s meant by that.

With kids, the issue of consent is thornier. It’s always hard to gauge what children "know" about their own situation and condition: even when they say "yes," it may be no more meaningful an agreement than the one they’d give if you offered them a meal-ruining ice cream. If someone had asked me, at two, if I wanted to play with monkeys, I’m sure there would have been no image of danger in my mind and I would’ve happily consented. But it was really up to my parents to agree for me.

Some might argue that allowing parents to make such decisions for their children is too paternalistic. Biomedical ethicists have developed a justification for that, though: they call it the principle of "beneficence." Basically, if the benefits of research to the subject seriously outweigh the risks, it helps justify the research. But, as even the Belmont Report admits:

"A difficult ethical problem remains, for example, about research that presents more than minimal risk without immediate prospect of direct benefit to the children involved. Some have argued that such research is inadmissible, while others have pointed out that this limit would rule out much research promising great benefit to children in the future."

The report concludes, lamely, that this means researchers have "difficult choices" before them when it comes to conducting research on children.

Even if we viewed parental consent as a universal salve, there are still the circumstances of the parents to consider. Take my own. As we were all at Waterloo in the post-ethics code era, they remember signing releases. They were full-fledged adults, in their 30s. But I still think some of their nonchalance about all this can be traced to where they came from.

Both of my parents grew up in rural Québec in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was something of a closed society. Most members of my extended family never went to university, never travelled much. My father was only at the University of Waterloo on a military scholarship; he’d dropped out of high school in his teens. In fact, he had only gotten his diploma when the Air Force made him do it while stationed in Germany in the mid '70s. Then, they discovered, he had a serious aptitude for math and science and sent him on through a master's degree so he could build CF-18 flight simulators.

So I happened to be born just as my parents had stepped into a world much wider than the ones they’d been born to. Let me be clear that I don’t think my parents were naïve or ignorant. I also don’t think they were wrong in the least to sign me up for the study. But their wanting me to attend that day care, the way my dad always speaks of it as an "opportunity," it had a context. I can’t help but think that most things looked like opportunities to my dad just then. He was already living a kind of life that he hadn’t dreamed up for himself.

Waterloo building

University of Waterloo campus. Image courtesy of author

I don’t believe there was ever any risk of serious harm from "my" study; but even if there had been, I wonder if I would even feel it now. There’s another experiment people often cite: the 1939 "Monster Study" at the University of Iowa. That is not, of course, what Mary Tudor, the researcher in question, called it. Her master's thesis was titled, "An experimental study of the effect of evaluative labeling of speech fluency." She was a student of a man named Wendell Johnson. Johnson had stuttered in his youth. He had a theory that stuttering could be conditioned — meaning that people could be "taught" to stutter.

He sent his student Tudor out to prove it by experimenting with a group of children from an Iowa orphanage. There were 22 of them in the study, ranging in ages from five to 15. Ten of them had already been identified as stutterers. The children were told they were going to receive speech therapy. Tudor split them into four groups. Two of the groups, IA and IB, contained the stutterers. The other two, IIA and IIB, contained non-stutterers. In each set, one group was comforted and told they spoke well; the other was told they stuttered.

The group that led Tudor’s fellow graduate students to call this the "monster study" was IIB, the non-stutterers who were nonetheless told that they stuttered, and cautioned to be careful about how they spoke. After a few sessions with Tudor, the children became incredibly self-conscious; they sometimes refused to speak at all; they suffered at school. The experiments lasted only six months, and none of the children in the IIB group ultimately became stutterers — although, as Tudor herself admitted, "we certainly made a definite impression on them." Apparently, she felt bad enough that long after she reversed course and told the children their speech patterns were normal, she continued to visit them to see if they were getting along all right.

The children became incredibly self-conscious; they sometimes refused to speak at all

In 2001, a reporter for a California newspaper named Jim Dyer came across reports of the study. The results had never really been published, beyond Tudor’s research thesis. He found one of the subjects, Mary Nixon, who still remembered the study. At the reporter's behest, Nixon sent Tudor a letter accusing her of outright abuse. "I couldn’t never tell my husband about it," Mary Nixon would later tell a New York Times Magazine reporter. "It just ruined my life."

National press coverage ensued. Dyer, the reporter, was eventually fired because he‘d tricked his way into university records by posing as a graduate student. That was how he obtained the names of the study participants. As for the subjects, they now all knew about what had happened to them as orphans as they hadn’t before; their reaction to this new bit of self-knowledge, coming after so long a silence, was outrage. They sued the University of Iowa, which settled in 2007 for over $900,000 to be split among the five living study participants.

None of these children grew up to be stutterers. Their claims were simply that they had low self-confidence as the result of being berated as children. Yet they were also all orphans, which you might imagine could also lead to some self-esteem problems. You do not have to pity the University of Iowa — which admitted to wrongdoing, paid up, and formally apologized for the project — to suspect that the causes of the children’s unhappiness were more intricate than anyone could allow.

Michelle Dean Goodbye

The author, age two

The public furor over the Monster Study is instructive of how much attitudes have changed over time. If the experiment’s procedures had simply been reported in the press in the 1940s, it’s hard to believe that anyone would have blinked. But by 2001, everyone agreed instantly that what had happened to those children was an outrage.

Historians love irony, and there’s plenty here. Because the very thing your Watsons and Tudors set out to prove — that what happens to a child can change her for life, whether it gives her a fear of animals or a stutter — is now an article of faith for parents everywhere. Everyone believes that, in the poet Philip Larkin’s famous formulation, "they fuck you up, your mum and dad." And given that we all now think that way, doing psychological research on children now seems to involve risks at once incalculable and giant. In other words: why expose your children to something new if you can’t control what it will do to them? Parents can’t be blamed for their aversion.

Behavioral research on children is still done, of course, but the awareness of the risks has muted it. Peruse lists of recent articles in journals of behavioral research and you’re more likely to find mild and unquestionably benevolent-sounding studies, like "Healthy Living Interventions in a Residential Girl Scout Camp" or "An intervention to preschool children for reducing screen time: a randomized controlled trial."

But what’s funny is that I don’t know that there are any lingering effects from my monkey day care. I can imagine them, but the only one that has actually proven to bother me is how frustrated I am that some intriguing part of my own development has been forever lost to me.

In the last few months, I have contacted people at the University of Waterloo, trying to find out what exactly this whole monkey study was. The problem is, 1981 was a long time ago. Everyone’s gone on, and I don’t have a researcher’s name. Even if I did, it probably wouldn’t help. Waterloo’s Research Ethics Office wrote me back with this spectacularly unhelpful remark: "Unfortunately, research data files, including details about participant identities, are the confidential property of the researcher involved." They ignored my next question, about whether that meant they couldn’t even confirm the existence of a study.

Finally, I called the press office. Their media relations guy, a kind Australian named Nick Manning, spent a few days trying to track the story down himself. At first, he got a lot of denials. The university, he said, would never have allowed children to be in close contact with monkeys. My parents must be mistaken; perhaps there’d been some comparative study between the behavior of toddlers and animals, but no one now remembered it happening.

Manning was able to confirm one element of what my parents had told me: the University of Waterloo definitely owned a colony of macaque monkeys in the early 1980s. The people who remembered them, he said, insisted that they would have been hidden from public view, that children never would have been let near them. I had already known about the macaques, which seem the likeliest candidates for "my" monkeys; by the mid-1990s, they’d been mentioned as part of a well-publicized scandal about the ill-treatment of research animals in university labs across Canada. The rise of public awareness about that very issue probably got them sent off to wilderness preserves — like many other Canadian research animals.

A day after we initially spoke, though, Manning called me back. He said that he’d spoken to someone who did remember the monkeys being visible behind glass, and who wouldn’t rule out the possibility that children had been brought there to see them. But still no one remembered anything specific.

And of course memory is a fragile thing. Confidentiality in research important, and I am not an overly cautious luddite who thinks that all child research should grind to a halt in the face of ethical conundra.

But still, sitting here at the end of an inquiry that brought almost no answers, the word my mind repeats to itself is disclosure, disclosure, disclosure. Put less bureaucratically: I just feel like I had some right to know more.