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Landis’ Facial Expressions

Number nine in the top unethical psychology experiments of all time is
Carney Landis' gag-inducing investigation of human facial expressions. Which of the experiments do you think is worst?

Are facial expressions universal?
Paint people’s faces and then make them fondle frogs and decapitate live rats.
Facial expressions are not universal.
“Ah, Miss Smith, please chop the head off this rat.”
“Umm… what?”
“Please decapitate this small mammal.”
“I’m sorry, but I signed up for a psychology experiment, not rodent death.”

More information
In 1924 Carney Landis designed an experiment to study whether emotions evoke universal facial expressions, for example, are there specific expressions used by all to convey shock or disgust? Seems like a normal enough premise, however, Landis’ methods of testing this were far from normal.

He painted lines on the faces of graduate students, to better show their facial expressions, and then proceeded to induce such emotions by presenting them with a variety of wacky stimuli. Among his expression-inducing tests were smelling ammonia, watching porn, and placing their hands into a bucket of frogs.

But the climax of the experiment, and the cause of its ethical controversy, involved Landis presenting participants with a live rat, and asking them to decapitate it. How this was the best he could come up with to induce disgust, we will never know.

Most of the students initially resisted his request, but two thirds of participants eventually complied, though not being experts, most performed the task clumsily and were, indeed, incredibly disgusted. For the one third that refused, Landis did the job himself, and noted their reactions accordingly.

It is unsurprising to discover that Landis never achieved what he set out to, the individual differences in facial expressions being so wide that he could not find a single universal expression. Interestingly, what Landis did discover, but failed to recognise at the time, is obedience to authority, anticipating Stanley Milgram’s famous results by forty years.

*Not an actual transcription from the experiment.

Image: ramzi hashisho

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08 Jan 2011
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