Growing up as a child research subject
May 20, 2015 10:22 AM   Subscribe

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.
In "Monkey Day Care," Michelle Dean writes for The Verge about her recollections of being a child participant in primate research, her frustrating attempt to find out more about the study, and about the history of and ethical questions about such research.
posted by Stacey (23 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
So I'm scrambling around for cross-reference, but this reads SO similarly to some of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - does anyone know if there's any shared authorship here, or is the similarity in topic just making my brain go a bit odd?
posted by ominous_paws at 10:35 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

It is, indeed somewhat similar to the book, though in the book, the primate lived with the family.

Research ethics remains a very slippery thing. I suspect we may look back 100 years from now and think of some of our research, or at least the way in which we obtain consent, as morally ambiguous, at best.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:41 AM on May 20, 2015

This is a topic that fills with with dreadful, train-wreck like interest. Children are very impressionable and the damage done can be incredibly subtle, but then human development and parental influence are also fascinating subjects.

I was surprised to read at how Dean's own parents managed to shrug off the whole ordeal:
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.
"What did you let them do to me?"
" ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ "
posted by erratic meatsack at 10:51 AM on May 20, 2015 [11 favorites]

The author seems inconclusive about whether this actually happened. No records, no photos, and no memories. It's an interesting article, for sure ... but it almost sounds like a joke her parents told her that for some reason they never corrected.

Meanwhile, I need to call my younger brother. I used to tell him he was raised by monkeys. I hope he still doesn't believe that.

I should probably tell my sister that she wasn't hatched from an egg while I'm at it.
posted by kanewai at 10:53 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I suspect we may look back 100 years from now ...

Uh, I think it will happen much more quickly than that. It should be illegal, and soon will be.

"Research shows that 90 percent of primates in laboratories exhibit abnormal behaviors that are caused by the physical abuse, psychological stress, social isolation, and barren confinement that they are forced to endure."

If research makes them abnormal by default, what good is the testing even?

"infant monkeys are torn from their mothers in order intentionally to cause psychological trauma and examine the harm that results. In some recent egregious studies, experimenters looked at the connection between maternal deprivation and whether the baby monkeys became right-handed or left-handed or how it affected the animals’ alcohol-drinking behavior later in life"

How to make a monkey an alcoholic. Really.


These horrific "studies" still go on today: University of Wisconsin.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:59 AM on May 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

I find it completely implausible that a scientific study conducted in the 1980s, which involved animal and human subjects, isn't published or documented somewhere.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:18 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

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.

Then I guess I am an overly cautious luddite, because I absolutely believe all child research should grind to a halt in the face of ethical conundra. When you get to an ethical conundrum, stop what you're doing and figure it out, and especially if it involves children. You can start again when you're sure what you're doing is good and not going to destroy anyone's life. It seems like a pretty straightforward rule of thumb.

As to whether this actually happened I wouldn't be surprised if an ethically dubious project by some idiot was started and then stopped and then never made mention of again. The fact that both parents remember it is what makes it seem likely to me.
posted by bleep at 11:29 AM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

"What did you let them do to me?"
" ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ "

I understand that this was how parenting worked until about 1990. It made us all strong, self-reliant people, unlike the kids these days with their helicopter parents and their phones and their vines and their hula hoops and their MP3 players. Seriously, though, I could see (as she does) why her parents would have had a much higher level of trust in institutions.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:34 AM on May 20, 2015 [8 favorites]

In my undergrad psychology 101 class, our exam asked us to design a supervised experiment involving small children, in order to determine whether or not they might later tell invented stories about how another adult had behaved when he was with them. I thought I had done a careful, sensitive job designing such an experiment, until I got back my paper with the horrified margin note "You never threaten children!" I still have no idea what I did wrong. Suffice it to say, I did not become a psychology major. Or a mom.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:40 AM on May 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

Given that the university had apparently been in trouble for treatment of the monkeys, and also that a study like the one she mentions might not have been ethical (and that the university undoubtedly knows about adults who have sued over being study subjects) the pressure to deny and possibly even destroy evidence of such a study would be pretty strong. But her parents, unless they are really lying for some inexplicable reason, dropped her off somewhere for some kind of study; there should be records that can be found.

Thankfully she doesn't seem to have been harmed. Although her dad comes off like kind of an asshole.
posted by emjaybee at 12:44 PM on May 20, 2015

Countess Elena: " "You never threaten children!""

Wait, what? That's called parenting.
posted by Splunge at 12:46 PM on May 20, 2015 [13 favorites]

Armchair parenting is pretty easy. And there are plenty of historical examples of really unwise, genuinely outrageous experimentation done on human beings, including children.

But some kind of monkey interaction experiment? Parents forgetting the details of some thing they enrolled their kid in over thirty years ago? Not retaining the paperwork? I can understand her curiosity to be sure, but it doesn't strike me as egregiously negligent, or even necessarily overly trusting.

How many parents were or are closely familiar with the type of sex and drug programs they opt their kids into? Abstinence education and DARE and all the other things people sign permission slips for no questions asked? Do you think you'd be able to describe the material they were exposed to thirty years down the road? Would you have retained the paperwork?

In the real world, parenting is hard. It's a lot of work, and it's a lot of responsibility. And it's all but inevitable that your child, at some point, is going to be traumatized by some experience, and it might be something you never would have even suspected would bother them. Kids are sensitive creatures, and you cannot protect them from every possibly damaging thing they might encounter.

Enrolling a child in some kind of controlled 'looking at monkeys' experiment is nothing compared to a lot of the things we do without even thinking twice.
posted by ernielundquist at 12:48 PM on May 20, 2015 [8 favorites]

My kids both went to a University day care where we were regularly solicited for their participation in child psych and/or early child education with grad students between the years of 2006 and 2012.

Whether it was a general re-staging of the marshmellow question or recorded conversations with toddlers about race relations, we gave consent. These studies usually sent home a page or so explaining what was going on, and some even came with rewards to the children, like a free early reading book or stickers.

Nobody ever offered my kids time with monkeys though. We clearly missed out. FWIW, other than the papers we signed and the page that outlined what was going on, I wasn't around for any of the grad student activity and would also have little to tell the kids about who they talked to and exactly what went on. The husband dropped them off for the day at University day care with full confidence that they would be in good condition when one of us came back for them.
posted by EinAtlanta at 12:54 PM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

I remember, a couple of times in first or second grade back in the late '70s, my class went to the local university and had our regular day of teaching and learning in a classroom there that was stocked with child-sized desks and had a big mirror along one side. I have no idea if this was for the Education, Psychology, or Sociology department, but I can't believe it was particularly useful or illuminating because we were all told that the mirror was one-way and that there were college students on the other side of it observing our class, so we spent lots of time going up to the mirror, waving at it, and shouting questions through it (none of which were answered). No monkeys, though!
posted by telophase at 1:15 PM on May 20, 2015

When I was very young my mother took me to a "drown proofing" school or somesuch. A friendly lady in the pool told me to kick my feet, and dropped me in the water. I had to have been around 4 or so at the time.

I remember not being able to get my head above water to breathe, despite kicking my feet like crazy. The lady then picked me back up, again very friendly, and instructed me to kick my feet. With the same cheery smile she dropped me back in. I remember the blue of the pool, how agonizingly close the surface was, and how when the crown of my head broke the surface equilibrium would grab hold and arrest all progress. There I would sit, not being able to breathe, with the surface right above my eyes.

Kick your feet.


Kick your feet.


The next day on the way to that dreaded pool I pitched such a fit that my mother decided that it wasn't such a good idea. I had such a fear of pools until I was around 7 or so. I would only go in the shallow end, and never go underwater. This only changed when my step-mother taught me how to swim, where I was in control; as much as one is in control of water.

My mother thought she was doing the right thing, and being young and naive she believed the "experts" of the what-ever-the-fuck that place's name was. It was also how the FBI got my fingerprints when I was roughly 6.

I guess the FBI at some point ran a program to "find lost children" by keeping records of their fingerprints. My mother took me down to the Sheriff's office and had my prints taken. I remember clearly how hard it was to get the ink off. I learned later, maybe though metafilter, that it was just a ploy to get citizens fingerprints for their database.

Do I resent my mother for these things? Not really. I was fed every day, clothed and loved. More so than a lot of people on this planet. Another thing that helps is my mother admits she fucked up on that one. I dunno if I have a real point other than don't be too quick to judge, cause hindsight is 20/20. Oh, my mother was 22 at the time of the "drown proofing", so some naivety is to be expected.
posted by The Power Nap at 1:35 PM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

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.
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.

If the author really did participate in an early 1980s university-sponsored study which involved preschoolers playing with macaques, I would find that beyond astonishing, and think that the university might have very very good reasons for keeping that study as quiet as it could:
Herpes simian B virus (Macacine herpesvirus 1 (formerly Cercopithecine herpesvirus 1, CHV-1[1]), Herpesvirus simiae, B virus) is the endemic simplexvirus of macaque monkeys. B virus is an alphaherpesvirus, which consists of a subset of herpes viruses that travel within hosts using the peripheral nerves. As such, this neurotropic virus is not found in the blood.

In the natural host, the virus exhibits pathogenesis similar to that of herpes simplex virus (HSV) in humans. Conversely, when humans are zoonotically infected with B virus, patients can present with severe central nervous system disease, resulting in permanent neurological dysfunction or death. Severity of the disease increases for untreated patients, with a case fatality rate of approximately 80%.[2] Early diagnosis and subsequent treatment are crucial to human survival of the infection.

Linked with more than two dozen deaths since its discovery, B virus is the only identified nonhuman primate herpesvirus that displays severe pathogenicity in humans. The last identified case of human B virus infection occurred in 2008, with the last known fatality occurring in 1997 when researcher Elizabeth Griffin was splashed in the eye at Yerkes National Primate Research Center.[3][4] Proper personal protective equipment is essential when working with macaques, especially those animals that have tested positive for the virus. Bites, scratches and exposures to mucous membranes, including the eye, must be cleaned immediately.

Since the identification of the virus in 1932, there have been 31 documented cases of human B virus infection, 21 of which led to death.[5] At least 20 of the patients developed some degree of encephalitis.[6][7]
posted by jamjam at 1:36 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a daycare near UC Berkeley, run by the university and for children of staff, where they have parents sign a waver saying their kids can be in experiments. Now, I know they're not doing the Milgram experiment, and everything's vetted by a research board, but still ...

That a daycare would do that creeped me out.
posted by zippy at 1:42 PM on May 20, 2015

A parent that would sign that creeps me out.
posted by Splunge at 2:39 PM on May 20, 2015

I bet her parents signed her up for an experiment that would compare the development of toddlers to that of monkeys— there's lots of such research published.

Somehow, her parents thought the experiment involved the monkeys and children interacting, so that became the family story about it. They weren't there for the experiments and they didn't ask further, so that is what they told her it was.

But I simply can't imagine researchers in a university putting toddlers and wild animals together. It makes no sense either experimentally or in terms of liability insurance. There were situations where researchers raised animals at home along with their own children, which have been documented.

However, what would you learn from having toddlers interact with monkeys once a week? Not much that would teach you anything other than that it's dangerous to let kids and wild animals near each other.
posted by Maias at 2:49 PM on May 20, 2015 [15 favorites]

Actually, that Berkeley daycare looks a bit similar to the campus day care my son went to while I was in college. (Although I'm sure the one my son went to was less prestigious.)

They had a core professional staff of employees, and in addition to that, they'd sometimes have graduate and undergraduate students come in to observe or to get practical experience, all under close supervision. Research consisted mostly of simple observation and every now and again one on one interviews with the children to assess things like language development and such. They weren't hooking them up to machines, doing manipulative psychosocial experiments, or dosing or traumatizing them for science. At the most disruptive, they might observe children's behaviors in response to different stimuli, like seeing what types of toys or lighting children preferred, or if they ate more fruits and vegetables depending on what shapes they were cut into.

The practical experience part consisted of undergraduate Early Childhood Education students observing and assisting in the classrooms, and getting some practical experience doing things like reading stories to the children. The worst case scenario, I guess, is the possibly apocryphal story I heard about a student teacher asking kids to think of words to rhyme with pictures she was showing them, including a picture of a 'pail' that the kids identified as a bucket.

Parents got full reports on any studies or observations being done, and were explicitly invited to come observe the observers (which a lot of parents did, as the day care was right on campus). And here are some examples of the types of studies the kids in that Berkeley day care are participating in. Looks like the same sort of thing, mostly. Observation and assessments.

Compare that to a typical overcrowded corporate day care staffed with overwhelmed teenagers making minimum wage, and reassess how creepy you think it might be to subject a child to an environment full of people who are actually invested in their development.
posted by ernielundquist at 4:11 PM on May 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

My son and I participated in this study for 15 years. (We were in the control group.). It was fun, interesting and rewarding. We were regularly provided with articles highlighting the research we were participating in. I never felt unsafe or exploited.
This story is all kinds of weird.
posted by Biblio at 7:01 PM on May 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

reassess how creepy you think it might be to subject a child to an environment full of people who are actually invested in their development.

Have reassesed; still creepy.
posted by zippy at 7:01 PM on May 20, 2015

I was a frequent subject for psycho-social experiments at Harvard from about 1964-1969 (ages 4-9). Most of them I don't remember, but a few were cruel either because they were Milgram-esque (taking food/toys away from other kids who didn't do a task correctly, for example) or, more often, because I would infer from the explanation provided afterwards that my behavior evidenced an undesirable aspect of my character, usually selfishness, failure to help others, self-absorption, questioning or complying with authority inappropriately, etc. I took these assessments on board and tried hard to overcome them, eg by being a doormat. Some of these impressions of myself remain potent although I can self coach myself out of it. I do not remember a single positive attribute being ascribed to me via the work, which I think is why my mother, who did not want me, continued to have me participate. Well that, and the money. Therapy helped.
posted by carmicha at 9:09 PM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

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