David Reimer – Possibly the most unethical study in psychological history


David Reimer was born as Bruce Reimer in 1965. Aged 8 months, Bruce and his twin Brian went for a routine circumcision. However, Bruce’s penis was accidently destroyed during his operation. John Money (1965) was a well-known psychologist and a sexologist at the time. Money (1965) suggested that Bruce should have a sex change, as plastic surgery was not advanced enough. Unknown to Bruce’s parents, Money had an ulterior motive (Diamond and Sigmundson, 1997).

Money had been working on a theory – that any boy could be raised as a girl (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972). He believed that Nurture was more important than Nature when it came to gender roles. The Reimer twins provided Money with a perfect sample, two twin boys (one believing they were a girl) raised by the same people in the same way. This allowed Money to experiment on Bruce while using Brian as a control.

Bruce underwent surgery and was raised as Brenda, a girl. Brenda behaved exactly as a little girl; playing with dolls, baking cookies, wearing dresses etc. Money published his works, stating that he had evidence to back up his theory. However, around the age of 7, Brenda began to act in a masculine way. In an attempt to stop this, Money tried to force Brenda to realise that she was female, and in some cases he was even accused of acting in a paedophilic way towards her and her brother (Langevin & Reuben, 1985).

Around the age of 13, Brenda began to look and act incredibly masculine, rejecting the femininity that had been forced upon her. Brenda’s parents eventually told her the truth when she was 14. Immediately she decided that she wanted to be a boy again, she stopped taking her hormones and changed her name to David. David later had surgery to reconstruct a penis, and went on to have a wife and children. However, aged 38 he committed suicide, 2 years after his twin also killed himself. It is believed that they both committed suicide because of the methodology used by Money and his impact on their life (Kipnis & Diamond, 1998)

Money’s reputation was ruined after he reported successes on a flawed experiment. David and his twin brother alleged that Dr Money had taken numerous naked photos of the twins during their treatment, and had even forced them to engage in “sexual play” at age 7 (Diamond & Sigmundson). As a psychologist, Money should have sought to protect the twins as they were so young (Galliher, 1973).

This study breaks many ethical codes of conduct. Firstly, the Reimer twins’ parents were deceived by Money. They were never told of his intentions to use their son as part of an experiment, and were led to believe that a sex change was the only option for baby Bruce. Secondly, Bruce never gave his consent to have the sex change, or to be involved in Money’s experiment. Although he was only a baby, his whole life was affected by the decisions of other people.

Perhaps the biggest issue was that Moneys experiment did not only ruin the lives of the whole family, but ultimately lead to the death of the twins. Although the twins offered a perfect sample for Money, as a psychologist he should have respected the rules of ethics and sort other ways to conduct research. However unethical this study was, it could be concluded from the findings that gender roles are biologically innate, with Nature overriding Nurture.

A doctumentary discussing the life of Davied Reimer is available here – http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3767337480016853964



Diamond, M. & Sigmundson, H. K. (1997) Sex reassignment at birth: a long-term review and clinical implications, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 152, 298 – 304

Galliher, J. F. (1973) The protection of human subjects: A re-examination of the professional code of ethics, The American Sociologist, Vol 8, 93-100

Kipnis, K. & Diamond, M. (1998) Pediatric Ethics and the Surgical Assignment of Sex, The Journal of Clinical Ethics, Vol 9(4) 398-410

Langevin, R. & Reuben, L. A. (1985) Psychological treatment of paedophiles, Behavioural Sciences and the Law, Vol 3(4), 403 – 419

Money, J. & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972) Man and woman, boy and girl: Differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity.

Does the media cause children to become desensitized to violence?


Desensitisation is a word used to describe the ways in which viewing acts of violence reduce our responsiveness (Bushman & Huesmann, 2006). Media violence may stimulate aggressive behaviour by desensitising children to the effects of violence. This means that the more violence that a child views on television, the less emotionally concerned they become and the more acceptable it seems (Cline, Croft & Courrier, 1973). Frequent viewing may cause children to be less anxious about violence and see it as more ‘normal’. Therefore, they may be more likely to engage in violence themselves.

According to Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis (2005), there is consistent evidence that violent imagery in television, film and computer games has substantial short-term effects on arousal, thoughts, and emotions. This increases the likelihood of aggressive or fearful behaviour in younger children, especially boys. These conclusions were drawn after a search for published work was conducted, revealing five meta-analytic reviews and one quasi-systematic review, all of which were from North America. The evidence becomes inconsistent when considering older children and adolescents, and also the long-term effects upon all ages. The different levels of aggression in children were tested, resulting in difficulties with the method and problems showing causation. However, a small but significant association was found, but with only weak evidence from correlation studies that linked media violence to crime.

Disinhibition is quite similar to desensitisation, the promoting of violent behaviour leads us to believe that violence is common and acceptable. According to Suler (2005), this reduces our normal inhibitions about behaving in certain anti-social ways, and may lead to us stopping exerting conscious control over our behaviour. Josephson (1987) argues that violence on screen is very different to violence in the real world, stating that media violence is more likely to make children more ‘frightened’ than ‘frightening’. According to Huesmann and Moise (2003), there are stronger desensitisation effects for males than there are for females. They suggest that boys who watch excessive amounts of television show lower-than-average physiological arousal in response to scenes of violence.

There is not sufficient evidence to support the claim that the media desensitizes children to violence, as there is an unpredictable link between watching television and aggression. The media cannot be wholly blamed for causing desensitization and disinhibition efftecs, certain factors such as individual differences and personality types need to be taken into consideration. Results cannot be generalizable to all children, as most studies tend to be conducted on young, white males, without taking into consideration females or other cultures. There are also some methodological problems; demand characteristics are common with controlled experiments. For example, when a natural experiment was conducted in St Helena (a British Colony in the South Atlantic Ocean), where people were first introduced to televisions in 1995, the new televisions did not increase aggressive behaviour, or desensitize people to acts of aggression (Charlton & O’Bey, 1997).




Browne, K. D. & Hamilton-Giachritsis, C. (2005) The influence of violent media on children and adolescents: a public-health approach, The Lancet, Vol. 365 (9460) pp. 702 – 710. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)17952-5


Bushman, B. J. & Huesmann, L. (2006) Short-term and long-term effects of violent media on aggression in children and adults, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 160 (4) pp. 348-352


Charlton, T. & O’Bey, S. (1997) Links Between Television and Behaviour: Students’ Perceptions of TV’s Impact in St Helena, South Alantic, Support for Learning, Vol. 12(3) pp. 130-136. doi: 10.1111/1467-9604.00031


Cline, V. B., Croft, R. G. & Courrier, S. (1973) Desensitization of children to television violence, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 27 (3), pp. 360-365. doi: 10.1037/h0034945


Huesmann, L. R. & Moise, J. T (2003) Longitudinal relations between children’s exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood, Developmental Psychology, Vol. 39(2), pp. 201-221. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.39.2.201


Josephson, W. L. (1987) Television violence and children’s aggression, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 53(5), pp. 882-890. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.53.5.882


Suler, J. (2005) The disinhibition effect, International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, Vol. 2(2), pp. 184–188

Is there anything that can’t be measured by psychologists?


Psychologists conduct experiments in order to gain an understanding of human behaviour and its possible causes (Gleitman, Gross and Reisberg, 2011). These experiments often involve measuring certain emotions or feelings, but it has been questioned whether such subjective matters can be measured accurately, if measureable at all (Mitroff, 1974).

Each individual has their own unique experiences and views on life, therefore their thoughts and behaviours cannot be measured accurately using the same scale. Complex variables that are not directly measureable, such as motivation and intelligence, provide problems for psychologists (MacCorguodale and Meehl, 1948). When conducting an experiment, the research must first remove all ambiguity from a construct so that it can be measured, this is known as operationalizing the variable (Gleitman, Gross and Reisberg, 2011). For example, define the concepts and deciding whether the construct should be assessed using quantitative or qualitative measures. If a construct can be operationalized, it can be measured. Therefore, if all aspects of behaviour can be defined, they can be measured by psychologists.

Some things, such as love, are very difficult to define and consequently difficult to measure (Hatfield and Spence, 1986). Even if a measure was made for psychologists to study love, the results can’t ever be 100% accurate. It is impossible to know how someone is truly feeling, sometimes people don’t even know what their feeling themselves. The unconscious mind for example is impossible to measure as researchers cannot get access to it. Although some psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud (1915), have attempted to measure such a complex area, no solid evidence has ever been found, and probably never will be.

Questionnaires are often used in psychology, some of which can contain a rating scale that measures things such as mood, motivation and personality (Mulder and Joyce, 1994). An issue with this method is that it is difficult to rate how happy or sad you are at a certain moment, and what one person might consider being very sad, another may not feel the same.

Ultimately it is possible for psychologists  to create a measurement scale for almost anything; however the accuracy and relativity of these measures are questionable. In the future perhaps new measurement methods may become available to psychologists, allowing them to measure even the most complex and abstract human behaviours.


Freud, S. (1915) The Unconscious, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 159-21

Gleitman, H., Gross, J., Reisberg, D. (2011) Prologue: What is Psychology?, Psychology Eighth Edition

Hatfield, E., Spencer, S. (1986) Measuring passionate love in intimate relationships, Journal of Adolescence, Vol 9 (4) Pages 383–410

MacCorguodale, K., Meehl, P.E. (1948) A distinction between hypothetical constructs and intervening variables, Psychological Review, Vol 55(2), 95-107. doi: 10.1037/h0056029

Mitroff, I. I. (1974) The subjective side of science, Scientists: Psychology

Mulder, R. T., Joyce, P. R. (1994) Relationships of the tridimensignal personality questionnaire to mood and personality measures for depressed patients, Psychological Reports, Vol 75, pp. 1315-1325. doi: 10.2466/pr0.1994.75.3.1315


The ‘file drawer problem’ was a term created Robert Rosenthal in 1979. It was a phrase composed to describe the numerous studies that may have been conducted but never reported. This problem is also known as publication bias, which is the tendency of researchers and editors to treat results that are positive (significant) differently to results that are negative (supporting the null hypothesis).

The extreme view of the ‘file drawer problem’  is that journals are filled with the 5% of the studies that show Type 1 errors (a false positive), while the file drawers back at the lab are filled with 95% of the studies that show non-significant results (p >.05). This means that some null hypotheses are in fact true and that the association being studied does not exist, but the 5% of studies that (by chance) show a statistically significant result are published instead (Rosenthal, 1979).

The ‘file drawer problem’ is a problem because false positive results are being published in professional journals. Effects that are not real may appear to be supported by research, thus causing serious amounts of bias throughout publicised literature (Bakan, 1967). The outcomes of some studies, for example a meta-analysis, rely heavily on published works that may have exaggerated outcomes. An additional issue is that investigators may waste precious time and effort conducting research on topics that have already been well-researched, but just have not been reported.

Although no definitive solution to this problem is available, estimations of damage to research conclusions can be made. (Rosenberg, 2005). The increasing interest of psychologists in summarizing entire research areas has lead to an improvement in bookkeeping. Rosenthal (1979) proposed a technique, based on probability, calculations for deciding whether a finding is resistant to the ‘file drawer effect’. This method is known as the fail-safe file drawer (FSFD) analysis. This analysis involves calculating a fail-safe number, which is then used to estimate whether or not the file-drawer problem is likely. Eventually, all results will be recorded with an estimate of effect size and with the level of significance obtained (Rosenthal, 1979).

However, Scargle (2000) has criticized Rosenthal’s method, stating that he fails to take into account the bias in the “file drawer” of unpublished studies, and thus can give confusing and misleading results. Scargle (2000) urges efforts, such as research registries, to try to limit publication bias.

It is important that the ‘file drawer problem’ is recognised and addressed in order for more psychologists to become aware. It appears that more researchers and reviewers of literature are taking into consideration the importance of null hypotheses. Hopefully, in the near future a solution for the ‘file drawer problem’ can be discovered.


Bakan, D. (1967) On method: toward a reconstruction of psychological investigation, 1st Edition, pp. 187

Rosenberg, M. S. (2005) The file-drawer problem revisited, Evolution, Vol 59 (2) pp. 464-468. DOI: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2005.tb01004.x

Rosenthal, R. (1979) The “file drawer problem” and tolerance for null results, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 86, No. 3, 838-641.

Scargle, J. (2000) Publication bias: The “file-drawer” problem in scientific inference,  Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 91-106

What is the ‘File Drawer Problem’ and why is it an issue?

Does ‘False Consensus’ Effect Exist?


False Consensus Effect is an egotistic bias, causing one to believe that others in a group will respond to a situation in exactly the same way as oneself (Dawes, 1987). For example, assuming that people hold the same beliefs and opinions towards specific behaviours and attitudes.

One study into false consensus effect was conducted by Ross, Greene and House (1976), which provided evidence for the existence of the false consensus. In this study participants were asked to read about situations in which a conflict occurred, and then told two alternative ways of responding. They were then asked to do three things, 1. Guess which options other people would choose 2. Say which option they would choose, and 3. Describe the attributes of the person who would choose each of the two options.

The results from this study indicated more people assumed others would do the same as them, regardless of which of the two responses they chose themselves. This shows what Ross et al (1976) described as the ‘false consensus’ effect – the idea that we each think other people think in the same way we do, when actually they often do not.

However, Suls and Wan (1987) state that there are factors that influence the way we view others.  People possessing undesirable attributes overestimate consensus, whereas people holding desirable attributes underestimate consensus, with the latter pattern being a form of false uniqueness.

According to Marks and Miller (1987) almost every psychologist has, at some point, found it difficult to explain a study’s findings because they assume that others think in the same way as they do. For example, being unable to understand how someone could misinterpret an incredibly easy question.

In conclusion, it is clear that the false consensus effect exists, to some extent. For further conclusions to be drawn, more modern experiments need to be conducted. Many of the studies were carried out in the late 80’s, where it has been suggested most people thought less independently (Duffy et al, 1999). This means that in the 21st Century, people may be less prone to the false consensus effect.




Dawes, M. R. (1987) Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 25 (1) 1-17 doi: 10.1016/0022-1031(89)90036-X

Duffy, M. L., Jones, J., Thomas, S.W. (1999) Intervention in School and Clinic, Vol. 35 no. 1 34-37 doi: 10.1177/105345129903500106I

Marks, G. Miller, N. (1987) Ten years of research on the false-consensus effect: An empirical and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 102(1), 72-90. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.102.1.72

Ross, L., Greene, D.,  House, P. (1976) Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 13, 279-301

Suls, J., Wan, C. K. (1987) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52 (1), 211-217. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.52.1.211

Is there sufficient evidence to support the claim that television influences pro-social and altruistic behaviour?


In socio-psychological terms, altruism is defined as helping someone at a cost to oneself (Mares, 1996). An extreme example would be risking your life to save a friend. However, a more everyday example would be giving money to a charity.  

The effects of the media on altruistic behaviour are often over looked as most research tends to be focused upon antisocial behaviour. This may be because pro-social programmes do not lead to moral panics as violent media does.  Altruistic acts on television are likely to reinforce our social norms e.g. helping others. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (1961), claims that we are more likely to imitate observed acts if we can relate to the characters, either because they are similar in terms of age or gender, or because they are admired. It could be argued then, that the audience can only relate to real-life characters and not cartoons.

One study by Poulos et al (1975) looked at the effects of television on altruistic behaviour. His study consisted of one group of young children watching an episode of Lassie and one group of children watching a neutral programme. After viewing the programme the children were presented with puppies in distress, but to help them they had to stop playing a video game. The children who watched Lassie were more likely to help puppies in distress than the children who watched the neutral programme, thus suggesting that children can be influenced by specific acts of altruism. This experiment also supports Bandura’s Social Learning Theory as the children learned through observation. However, this experiment only looked at one-shot exposures to a pro-social model (Mares and Woodard, 2005). The findings show that children are most affected when they are shown the exact steps for positive behaviour and are more likely to remember concrete acts rather than abstract ones ; explaining why the children helped the puppies in distress.

Studies show that there are beneficial short-term effects on altruistic behaviour and positive social interactions. However, there are very few studies that prove any effects in the long-term. Most of the findings are consistent with Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, that people imitate the positive behaviour that they have observed. However, studies involving the effects of the media on pro-social behaviour have focused on very specific things i.e. helping puppies. Therefore, psychologists remain uncertain about the intensity of the effects of television on pro-social behaviour. Social Learning Theory states that we imitate the behaviour we see on screen, however, Rosenkoetter (1973) states that we are more likely to imitate behaviour if we know why the individual is behaving in a certain way, and he claims that Social Learning Theory does not explain this.



Bandura, A. (1978) Social Learning Theory of Aggression. Journal of Communication, Vol 28 (3) 12-29. DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1978.tb01621.x

Mares, M. (1996) The role of source confusions in television’s cultivation of social reality judgements. Human Communication Research. 23 (2), 278-97.

Mares, M., Woodard, E. (2005) Positive Effects of Television on Children’s Social Interactions: A Meta-Analysis. Media Psychology, Vol 7 (3), 301-322. DOI:10.1207/S1532785XMEP0703_4

Poulous, R.W., Harvey, S.E., Liebert, R.M. (1976) Saturday Morning Television: A profile of the 1974-75 Children’s season. Psychological Reports, Vol 39 (1) 1047-1057. DOI: 10.2466/pr0.1976.39.3f.1047

Rosenkoetter, L.I. (1973) Resistance to temptation: Inhibitory and disinhibitory effects of models. Developmental Psychology, Vol 8(1), Jan 1973, 80-84. Doi: 10.1037/h0033837

Are adolescents and young females from Western cultures the only sufferers of Bulimia Nervosa?


Bulimia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by the recurrent binge eating of junk food, combined with self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives or extreme exercise (Wilson and Pike, 2001). Bulimia is 9 times more common in women than in men (Barker, 1993), and more prevalent in Western industrialised cultures (Nasser, 1986). It has been claimed that Bulimia Nervosa is a culture-bound syndrome (Keel and Klump, 2003); however recent evidence has suggested this is not completely true.

 Eating disorders were previously thought to be isolated to achievement-oriented, upper and middle class individuals in Western countries. Pate, Pumariega and Hester (1991) suggested that these disorders may be increasing in other sectors of society and in a number of diverse cultural settings. Eating disorders are, in fact, more prevalent within various cultural groups than previously recognized, both within American ethnic minorities and those in other countries. According to Nasser (1997, as cited in Gleitman, Gross and Reisberg, 2011), as cultures become more westernized, rates of bulimia nervosa increase.

However, there is also conflicting evidence. Davis, Clance and Gailis (1999) studied women living Canada, America, Africa and the Caribbean and took into account socio-cultural factors such as oppression, sexism and racism. They concluded that perceptions of body image change between African-American women and Caucasian women, with African- Americans having more body confidence and higher self-esteem.

 Bulimia is believed to be confined to women only, however recently Psychologists have also been interested in the increase of bulimia in gay and bisexual men. Feldman and Meyer (2007) estimate that 15% of gay or bisexual men have at some time suffered from bulimia, compared with less than 10% of lesbians and 8% of heterosexual women. It is not clear why some gay men suffer from eating disorders; one reason may be that they have similar views to women towards body image and physical appearance, the ideal of which is promoted in the gay community.

Another belief is that bulimia is restricted to adolescent girls and young women, yet recent research suggests that is not entirely the case. Mangweth-Matzek et al (2006) suggest that body dissatisfaction continues into old age. 475 60-70 year old women were analysed, out of this sample 3.8% met the diagnostic criteria for bulimia. Although this is a small percentage, it shows that eating disorders are not just confined to young women.

In conclusion, evidence suggests that bulimia nervosa is more a characteristic of Western cultures, where women have a preoccupation with thinness (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Research also suggests that within these Western cultures it is not just women who are suffering, but also gay and bisexual men. It would be wrong to assume that only adolescent and young females are bulimic, as studies have shown that the disorder carries on into later life.



American Psychiatric Association (2000). Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with eating disorders (2nd Edn). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Barker, S.E. (1993) Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Volume 102(1), Pages 173-176, US: American Psychological Association, February 1993. DOI: 10.1037/0021-843X.102.1.173

Davis, N.L., Clance, P.R., Gailis, A.T. (1999) Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Volume 36(1), Pages 27-35, US: Division of Psychotherapy (29), American Psychological Association, 1999. DOI: 10.1037/h0087643

Feldman, M.B., Meyer, I.H. (January 2007) Eating Disorders in diverse lesbian, gay and bisexual populations, International Journal of Eating Disorders, Volume 40, Issue 3, Pages 218-226. DOI: 10.1002/eat.20360

Gleitman, H., Gross, J., Reisberg, D. (2011) Psychology Eighth Edition, Chapter 16, Pages 669-670. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, 2011.

Keel, P.K., Klump, K.L. (2003) Psychology Bulletin, Volume 129(5), Pages 747-769, US: American Psychological Association, September, 2003. DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.5.747

Mangweth-Matzek, B. (2006) Never too old for eating disorders or body dissatisfaction: A community study of elderly women, International Journal of Eating Disorders, Volume 39, Issue 7, Pages 583-586, November 2006. DOI: 10.1002/eat.20327

Nasser, M. (1986), Psychological Medicine, 16, Pages 621-625, Cambridge University Press, 1986. DOI: 10.1017/S0033291700010370

Pate, J.E., Pumariega, A.J., Hester, C. (1992) Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Volume 31, Issue 5, Pages 802-809. DOI:10.1097/00004583-199209000-00005

Pike, K.M., Wilson, G.T. (1994) Assessment of diagnostic features of bulimia nervosa: Interview versus self-report format, International Journal of Eating Disorders, Volume 16, Issue 1, Pages 75-81, Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company, 1994. DOI: 10.1002/1098-108X(199407)16:13.0.CO;2-E