Working draft:

Moral panics can be induced subtly


In 1959-1962, at Harvard University, Henry A. Murray and other psychologists conducted experiments involving 22 undergraduates. This research was to see how people reacted under stress, and involved, among other things, interrogations that assaulted the subjects' egos, values, and beliefs. Subjects were paid for participating, and there were a large number of sessions over the years (about 200 hours). The description provided to subjects was cryptic.

"During the war (WWII) Murray served in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, helping to develop psychological screening tests for applicants and (according to Timothy Leary) monitoring military experiments on brainwashing." (Chase, 2000)

"Murray and his colleagues "put together an assessment system ... [that] tested a recruit's ability to stand up under pressure, to be a leader, to hold liquor, to lie skillfully, and to read a person's character by the nature of his clothing.... Murray's system became a fixture in the OSS."

Some of the procedure was described in Murray's 1948 report "Selection of Personnel for Clandestine Operations -- Assessment of Men,"
The candidate immediately went downstairs to the basement room. A voice from within commanded him to enter, and on complying he found himself facing a spotlight strong enough to blind him for a moment. The room was otherwise dark. Behind the spotlight sat a scarcely discernible board of inquisitors.... The interrogator gruffly ordered the candidate to sit down. When he did so, he discovered that the chair in which he sat was so arranged that the full strength of the beam was focused directly on his face....

At first the questions were asked in a quiet, sympathetic, conciliatory manner, to invite confidence.... After a few minutes, however, the examiner worked up to a crescendo in a dramatic fashion.... When an inconsistency appeared, he raised his voice and lashed out at the candidate, often with sharp sarcasm. He might even roar, "You're a liar."

"In 1960, Timothy Leary returned to Harvard and established a psilocybin research project with the approval of Dr. Harry Murray, chairman of the Department of Social Relations. Dr. Murray, who ran the Personality Assessments section of the OSS during World War II, took a keen interest in Leary's work. He volunteered for a psilocybin session, becoming one of the first of many faculty and graduate students to sample the mushroom pill under Leary's guidance."

There is NO evidence that any of Murray's subjects were given psilocybin, and there is no evidence that Murray's research at this time was defense-related.


The June, 2000, Atlantic Monthly article by Alston Chase recounts this research, because Theodore (Ted) Kaczynski was a participant. Kaczynski later became known as the "Unabomber," who mailed many letter bombs over 17 years (1978-1995) to academics and others, killing three and injuring many more. He was arrested in 1996, and sentenced to a life sentence in 1998.

This article asks several times whether Kaczynski's behavior many years later could have been due to becoming imbalanced by the experience of participating in this research. After the "rhetorical" question, the author usually points out there is no proof of a connection (likewise no evidence for psilocybin use or military involvement), but repeatedly asks the question (drops the hint), so there is little doubt about the intended take-home message. (Of course, the conspiracy theorists would say there is no evidence because these were secret experiments, funded by the nefarious CIA on campus. But the simpler conclusion is that there is no evidence because it didn't happen?) Sorry, the correct statement is "There is no evidence (period)," and not "There is no evidence, but ...," deal with it.

So, the innuendo is that pre-IRB psychology experiments were the cause of the Unabomber's problems. (This innuendo is also apparent in an article by C. Sears, in Lingua Franca, Sept. 2000.)

I guess this implies that anyone who participated in pre-IRB psychology experiments and later committed a crime now has that alibi as well? But perhaps this is good news: maybe we can expect crime rates to drop dramatically as IRB influence spreads, could it be, at last, a cure for crime is near?

To be fair, we should ask if any of the participants in Murray's research did anything outstanding, like win a Pulitzer Prize, found Microsoft, become President, or whatever. And we should ask how many terrorists and other no-good-nicks managed to develop without participating in Murray's experiments? Plus what courses did Kaczynski take, what books did he read, what toothpaste did he use, and so forth.

There are many comparisons that should be made here, before we begin using this speculation as a reason for IRBs to expand or even justify their present efforts.

Kaczynski adamantly resisted an insanity defense, and many people do not (and did not) find him that way. His arguments about the negative effects of a technological society are articulate and far from unique. He functioned well enough for a decade after Harvard to obtain a PhD in Math (obtaining above-average marks as a teacher), and so forth. After the fact (i.e., the bombings) people did begin to think they saw mental disturbance, or so they said (but please go read Rosenhan again).

Whether Murray had anything to do with creating a Unabomber is sheer speculation, and would not even be worth noting, except for the gratuitous efforts to imply IRBs can prevent a Unabomber.

What Murray did, like Milgram and Zimbardo, wouldn't be approved today. But that's more because of general social and cultural changes than anything inherent in the IRB process.

Of course, the CIA wouldn't ask permission, then or now. So their behavior won't be stopped by IRB reviews, and thus IRBs can't be justified by the behavior of the CIA and other government agencies.