Research ethics

by Chris Bertram on September 5, 2008

Oh how times change! I rather doubt that a piece of 1958 research on how children behave when locked in fridges would make it past a modern university ethics committee!

Using a specially designed enclosure, 201 children 2 to 5 years of age took part in tests in which six devices were used, including two developed in the course of this experiment as the result of observation of behavior. Success in escaping was dependent on the device, a child’s age and size and his behavior. It was also influenced by the educational level of the parents, a higher rate of success being associated with fewer years of education attained by mother and father combined. Three major types of behavior were observed: (1) inaction, with no effort or only slight effort to get out (24%); (2) purposeful effort to escape (39%); (3) violent action both directed toward escape and undirected (37%). Some of the children made no outcry (6% of the 2-year-olds and 50% of the 5-year-olds). Not all children pushed. When tested with devices where pushing was appropriate, 61% used this technique. Some children had curious twisting and twining movements of the fingers or clenching of the hands. When presented with a gadget that could be grasped, some (18%) pulled, a few (9%) pushed, but 40% tried to turn it like a doorknob. Time of confinement in the enclosure was short for most children. Three-fourths released themselves or were released in less than 3 minutes; one-fourth in less than 10 seconds. Of those who let themselves out, one-half did so in less than 10 seconds. One-third of the children emerged unruffled, about half were upset but could be comforted easily, and a small group (11%) required some help to become calm.

I’ll bet they did.

H/t Zoe D.

{ 48 comments }

1

John Emerson 09.05.08 at 10:31 am

“Some refrigerators unfortunately turned out to be impossible to escape”.

2

Zamfir 09.05.08 at 10:37 am

higher rate of success being associated with fewer years of education attained by mother and father combined.

I guess this is the major reason why this type of research isn’t replicated anymore. I doubt that PhD researchers married to other PhD’s like this one bit…

3

Zamfir 09.05.08 at 10:39 am

And by the way, this is really going to be my favourite piece of research-for-mentioning-in-random-conversation, for months to come…

4

Praisegod Barebones 09.05.08 at 11:26 am

‘An important result of the behavior study was the finding that, when entrapped, children most often try to escape either by pushing on the door through which they entered the enclosure, or by manipulating a knob release as they would a doorknob.’

Does anyone reckon that a low judgment of the importanceof this result might also have been ‘associated with fewer years of education attained by mother and father combined’?

5

Sk 09.05.08 at 1:01 pm

“Success in escaping was dependent on the device, a child’s age and size and his behavior. “

“His”????

Those barbarians!@!

Sk

6

Charlie 09.05.08 at 1:20 pm

I think an immediate resumption of the experiment is in order. I ‘m volunteering Karl Rove, Tony Blair, George Bush, Richard Cheney and John McCain as test subjects.

Now where did I put that big tube of cyanoacrylate adhesive?

7

stefan 09.05.08 at 1:28 pm

See the Refrigerator Safety Act of 1956, effective 1958. Still, more than 200 deaths in old pre-1958 since then.

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2586/is-it-impossible-to-open-a-refrigerator-door-from-the-inside

8

ajay 09.05.08 at 1:32 pm

How exactly does one become locked in a refrigerator? All the ones I’ve seen have doors that simply swing open and shut, with a rubber gasket round the edge; if you were inside, just leaning against the door would open it. Do US refrigerators have Yale locks on them or something?

9

Lisa 09.05.08 at 1:48 pm

Oh, for the permissiveness of the fifties. The smoking, the drinking, tanning with impunity, locking undergraduates in mock prison cells for one’s research…a lost golden age.

I’ll bet that guy got tenure too.

10

Lex 09.05.08 at 1:52 pm

Ajay, read #6…

11

Henry (not the famous one) 09.05.08 at 1:57 pm

I’m not so quick to condemn the researchers or their methods. While their results may be stupidly obvious to Barebones, they had the virtue of being empirical evidence obtained by a scientific experiments of a sort. As the blurb points out, these researchers were responding to an Act of Congress that required scientific research to justify changes in the way that refrigerators were designed in order to avert deaths of small children who crawled in them. Sounds like Eisenhower-era policy-making–before industry discovered the virtue of requiring exhaustive, endless challenges to the scientific basis of regulations–that required some sort of evidentiary basis for standards.

And as for the methods chosen, it sounds as if they adopted safety measures to protect the physical health of the children involved. I am only guessing, of course, but they seem to have been surprised by the number of children who needed help to become calm. Their concern for these kids’ psychological well-being might have been clouded, of course, by their certainty that they were saving lives in the process, but it doesn’t sound like the careless (or criminal) exposure to risk that others were subjecting on prisoners and other unfree or uninformed subjects.

I may be biased, of course: I grew up in that era, have some dim memories of hiding in my parent’s refrigerator (or trying to–like I said, the memories are dim), and recall being mildly surprised by the idea that refrigerators were not safe places for play when the public service television ads advising adults to lock up abandoned refrigerators came out a few years later. So I may be the beneficiary of research that made refrigerators easier for children to exit. And call me insensitive, but I considered this sort of trauma inflicted by others (such as my friends who locked me in the cave we had dug and fitted out with a plywood door that could be locked) as a part of the vicissitudes of growing up.

Sorry if I sound like one of those persons who starts (or ends) a conversation by saying “In my day . . . ” Insert your Monty Python quotations here.

12

dsquared 09.05.08 at 2:04 pm

All the ones I’ve seen have doors that simply swing open and shut, with a rubber gasket round the edge; if you were inside, just leaning against the door would open it.

lots of 1950s refrigerators had latches and handles on the outside; if you do a google image search for “1950s refrigerator” you’ll see what I mean. The rubber gasket/magnetic seal type is the result of health&safety legislation.

13

Gareth Rees 09.05.08 at 2:08 pm

Kraus (1985) reviewed the effectiveness of the Refrigerator Safety Act in California over the period 1960–1981. Suffocation deaths in refrigerators and freezers fell from about 2 per million in 1960 to less than 0.5 per million in 1981 (see figure 3 of the paper).

J F Kraus (1985). Effectiveness of measures to prevent unintentional deaths of infants and children from suffocation and strangulation. Public Health Rep. 100(2): 231–240.

14

Gene O'Grady 09.05.08 at 2:19 pm

Since I still well remember the fifties, let me assure you that lots of kids died from being stuck in refrigerators and that kids like me were constantly reminded not to play in them.

As to the context, or the question where were all these refrigerators that kids were getting into, one needs to remember that the environment of the suburban American child in the fifties resembled one vast construction site, with new buildings going up and an occasional old one being torn down, as far as the eye could see. I remember once all the neighborhood kids had sort of migrated en masse to an old building in the midst of a lot of new construction. Rather like paradise until several police officers and a whole lot of concerned parents showed up shortly after sundown.

15

J Thomas 09.05.08 at 2:20 pm

Ajay, US refrigerators used to have latches, and you’d pull on a handle to open them. They never opened themselves accidentally which modern refrigerators do now very rarely, mostly when something inside is jammed against the door. You could always absolutely tell whether the refrigerator was closed or not; if it didn’t clack shut then it was open. They were impossible to open from the inside unless in the dark you could take apart the door from the inside and manipulate the latch mechanism.

The refrigerators you see are a reaction to childen getting locked into refrigerators and suffocating — particularly abandoned refrigerators that they might find while playing outdoors. Stefan provided a link about that. When it became legally necessary for refrigerator manufacturers to make refrigerators that children could get out of, then it made sense to find out whether children could get out of the candidates. Since it cost more to make a latch that could be opened from the inside, better not to do it if it didn’t work.

The idea to throw away the latch and depend on magnets to hold the seal didn’t come naturally.

16

Ray 09.05.08 at 2:54 pm

One of the downsides of parenthood is the way comment threads like this can really get under your skin…

17

Barry 09.05.08 at 2:54 pm

There was similar research mentioned a year or two ago, on trying to design trunk lids which could be opened from the inside.

18

Lex 09.05.08 at 2:56 pm

Like I said, read #6.

19

Preachy Preach 09.05.08 at 3:15 pm

There was similar research mentioned a year or two ago, on trying to design trunk lids which could be opened from the inside.

Rejoice, mafioso on the losing side of gang wars! (And also, possibly, depending on whether we’re using British or American English, brides playing hide and seek on their wedding day.)

20

stefan 09.05.08 at 3:21 pm

There was similar research mentioned a year or two ago, on trying to design trunk lids which could be opened from the inside.”

Yes, locking the kids in the car trunk is not longer a safe option. Trade-offs.

21

Anderson 09.05.08 at 3:46 pm

I think the CIA must’ve been secretly funding this research to see how close confinement in a fridge-like setting affected interrogation targets.

(Interrogees? If there’s an interrogator, whom does he interrogate?)

22

mpowell 09.05.08 at 4:01 pm

I have no idea, but I think it would be disappointing to learn that such a study would not be acceptable today. Especially since this one was directed towards a very specific and valuable purpose, it seems like the mild and temporary mental discomfort would be acceptable. This isn’t like nazi experiments on the time of human survival in freezing water or something.

23

functional 09.05.08 at 4:48 pm

F**** institutional review boards.

Seriously, this sounds like some very useful research that probably led to lots of lives saved. Much more useful than any number of things that IRBs do permit.

24

abb1 09.05.08 at 5:54 pm

and a small group (11%) required some help to become calm

Yup, these are probably guaranteed a severe case of claustrophobia till the end of their lives. Oh well, can’t make an omelet, I guess…

25

lemuel pitkin 09.05.08 at 6:40 pm

In light of comments 7 (formerly known as comment 6), 13 and 15, I’m inclined to think that (1) this was probably a reasonable & worthwhile question to study and (2) the box this belongs in is not “those wacky social scientists” or the “the past is another country”, but “further proof that gov’t regulation works.”

26

mpowell 09.05.08 at 6:56 pm

25: Amen to that.

27

Dave 09.05.08 at 6:59 pm

Can we all go home now? I have a poodle that needs to go in the microwave…

28

Tom Parmenter 09.05.08 at 7:49 pm

This item recalls the popular gag-line of the 50s comedians making fun of people who were all up tight because “their father locked them in a dark closet”.

This was taken to be something all parents did. Only weak, silly children would be harmed or take any offense. Plus it’s a very funny putdown.

Locked in a closet by your father, ha-ha-ha. Gone the way of limburger cheese as a topic for humor.

29

David in NY 09.05.08 at 8:07 pm

Guess the guy who came up with the magnets was thinking outside the box, eh?

30

Righteous Bubba 09.05.08 at 8:20 pm

Thank god the funding was frozen for these chilling experiments.

31

K 09.06.08 at 10:41 am

“higher rate of success being associated with fewer years of education attained by mother and father combined.”

Meaning that one might have had more brothers’n’sisters and a semi-violent father hence was more likely to end up in a closed casket-fridge-car trunk BEFORE the experiment, right? Working class survivor skills…

32

Richard 09.07.08 at 7:13 am

The last line about the follow-up study struck me particularly:

“Reasons for the low level of anxiety engendered by the tests may lie in the precautions taken and in factors inherent in the situation; the parents were not involved in the incident, which enabled them to be calm and casual with the children.”

What kind of test was this? Did they pick children up off the streets? Entice them with candy?

33

Dave 09.07.08 at 7:42 am

Really, amazing how western civilisation was ever constructed, what with everyone being traumatised by their childhood an’ all. Oh, wait, maybe that explains everything….

34

pv 09.07.08 at 10:12 am

abb1 09.05.08 at 5:54 pm, wrote:

and a small group (11%) required some help to become calm

Yup, these are probably guaranteed a severe case of claustrophobia till the end of their lives.

All of them?
Whad’ya mean?
Well, how do you know?
We just do! Common sense, innit!

35

Henry (the unreal one) 09.07.08 at 2:47 pm

A follow-up study of 96 test subjects, 8 months after the tests, by interviews with the mothers showed very little obvious residual effect. Reversion to infantile behavior was not found. A number of children still talked about the tests, some with pleasure, a few with resentment. Mothers were not aware of more than ephemeral emotional upset in any of the children.

Reasons for the low level of anxiety engendered by the tests may lie in the precautions taken and in factors inherent in the situation; the parents were not involved in the incident, which enabled them to be calm and casual with the children.

Puts it more into context for the ‘think of the children’ crowd.

36

Meryl Altman 09.07.08 at 3:09 pm

What’s really disturbing to me is that a quarter of the children made no effort to escape – and half of the five-year olds had learned that when you were in trouble and frightened, the appropriate response was to keep quiet. Presumably the better-educated parents were more successful at inculcating these behaviors.

If the experiment could be replicated today, maybe we’d learn something about the social history of parenting – 1950s conformism vs. the Ritalin generation? Fortunately it can’t be. (I figure those posters who seem nostalgic for a time before ethics-in-research rules protected vulnerable populations are kidding?)

37

abb1 09.08.08 at 6:08 am

@34, yes, common sense, and also facts about the disorder, commonly known. What is your problem, exactly?

38

Steve Jones 09.08.08 at 8:39 am

No doubt this sort of research would not be allowed now. However, it’s very possible that this saved lives, if only because it allows designers to take into account children’s behviour under these circumstances. Some might argue that it is easy enough for designers to produce “safe” systems, but it is all to easy to make assumptions about either adult or child behaviour.
So unethical as this might appear to be, it could have saved lives.

39

SusanC 09.08.08 at 9:20 am

Edward Jenner’s experiments on smallpox vaccination (also involving some child subjects) were even better. I think I’d rather be shut in a refrigerator than experimentally infected with smallpox. And yet, there is little doubt that the devleopment of smallpox vaccine saved lives.

40

ajay 09.08.08 at 10:02 am

I think I’d rather be shut in a refrigerator than experimentally infected with smallpox.

Jenner infected people with cowpox, having noticed that people who had had cowpox – such as milkmaids and other dairy farm workers – tended not to get smallpox. If he had infected people with smallpox, then they would have got smallpox.

41

ajay 09.08.08 at 10:03 am

Oh, and thanks to stefan, dsquared, J Thomas and others for explaining about old-style fridges.

42

SusanC 09.08.08 at 10:46 am

From Jenner’s Case XVII:

“… I selected a healthy boy, about eight years old, for the purpose of inoculation for the Cow Pox. … In order to ascertain whether the boy, after feeling so slight an affection of the system from the Cow-pox virus, was secure from the contagion of the Small-pox, he was inoculated the 1st of July following with variolous matter, immediately taken from a pustule. “

But yes, the cow pox did indeed provide protection against smallpox infection.

43

pv 09.08.08 at 1:42 pm

abb1 wrote on 09.08.08 at 6:08 am:

@34, yes, common sense, and also facts about the disorder, commonly known. What is your problem, exactly?

Good question.
Victim culture? Unsubstantiated claims? Possibilities presented as certainties? Extrapolating from no information?
It may well be that some children might have suffered some long term effects of unspecified severity. Maybe, maybe not. That’s what makes this kind of study unethical. It’s still a difficult area and hardly black and white in terms of cost/benefit. But to state the quantity and severity of the effect with certainty is unsupportable. To state the possibility is sufficient and supportable.
If you ask any anti-vaccination quack for their raison d’être they’ll most likely cite, among other unsupportable utterances, common sense. If you are sporting and learning to ski it’s only natural, therefore common sense, to lean into the hill.
In the real world one of the least common of commodities is sense.

44

Lex 09.08.08 at 2:19 pm

“In the real world one of the least common of commodities is sense.”

Oh, dearie me, and doesn’t the blogosphere reinforce that point every day!

45

derek 09.08.08 at 2:27 pm

ajay, Jenner’s discovery of vaccination, infection with cow pox, was in fact an alternative to the then-current practice of inoculation, dleiberate infection with smallpox in order to avoid smallpox. I’m not sure what the value of inoculation was supposed to be, but it was done.

46

abb1 09.08.08 at 2:38 pm

Right, if an anti-vaccination quack cites common sense, then common sense must always be nonsense.

Here, the first claustrophobia+childhood link I googled:

http://www.epigee.org/mental_health/claustrophobia.html
Causes of Claustrophobia
Claustrophobia can develop from either a traumatic childhood experience (such as being trapped in a small space during a childhood game), or from another unpleasant experience later on in life involving confined spaces (such as being stuck in an elevator).

Is this really so complicated? Right is left, up is down, black is white? Should you, perhaps, contra-common-sense lock your children in refrigerators to inoculate them against claustrophobia?

Come on, buddy, you’re just being silly.

47

Righteous Bubba 09.08.08 at 3:03 pm

I’m not sure what the value of inoculation was supposed to be, but it was done.

Same idea as vaccination.

This is actually interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inoculation

48

Nabil 09.08.08 at 6:43 pm

Another part of what makes this seem unusual to contemporary eyes is the idea that kids roamed about outside, in groups, looking for things like abandoned refrigerators to play with. Nowadays there’s Xbox.

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