Genie – Research or Exploitation?


Feral Children – “lost or abandoned human children raised in extreme social isolation” (Carl Linnaeus 1758)

Genie was locked up by her father to keep her away from what he considered to be the dangers of the outside world. Strapped to a seat 24 hours a day from the age of 2 to 13, Genie missed out on imperative early attachments, turning her into a ‘feral’ child. Unable to speak or walk properly, she was for all purposes an infant trapped in the body of a 13 year old girl. (NOVA: Secret of the Wild Child Documentary)

Genie was an extremely interesting case and was considered a ‘natural experiment’. Researchers from all around the country were eager to study her, Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Linguistics all used her as a human guinea pig for studies into language development.

If participants do not refuse to be involved in studies, then is it okay for experiments to go ahead? When an ambulance is called out to an emergency, they must ask if the patient would like their help. If for any reason no answer is given then this is taken as consent. If Genie didn’t refuse the researchers, then did this make it acceptable?  Because Genie was unable to speak, she could not physically express consent. However, verbal communication wasn’t the most important part of her understanding. The APA standards for consent for a participant stress competency for understanding. (Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct). Because Genie was brought up in a situation where she was not exposed to any human language, she did not have the capacity to understand what the researchers were asking her to do. Therefore, she could not be classified as competent by any standard and subsequently should not have been used in the experiment? It is clear that Genie also suffered from extreme psychological harm after the experiments were conducted, such as refusing to open her mouth after being abused and refusing to show any interest in other people (Susan Curtiss, 1971).

Although experiments conducted on Genie offered detail into an exceptional mind, it is unclear how the research benefited society. With it being such a rare case, it is hardly representative of a wider population.  However, at the time Genie’s case had the perceived ability to reveal critical insights into language development and linguistics. In the 1970’s research upon this topic was so uncommon, to find Genie was a phenomenon. Genie was a prize, and it was a competition to see who would get to study her. Being a case study, this research was incredibly interesting and in depth, providing detail like no other. However, it is difficult to generalise from individual cases as each one has unique characteristics.

Ultimately, the interests of science were put before the best interests of a child. Today, this case remains famous for its interesting insights into the horrific account of an isolated child. The psychologists involved took advantage of Genie’s under developed mental state and used her for their own gain. These psychologists were later sued by Genie’s mother for outrageous and excessive testing (Russ Rymer, 1994).





1 – Carl Linnaeus 1758

2 – NOVA: Secret of the Wild Child. (Documentary about Genie), March 4, 1997

3 – American Psychological Association Guidelines, Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.

4 – Susan Curtiss, 1977. Researcher of Genie. Psychology AS, The Complete Companion.

5 – Russ Rymer, “Genie, A scientific Tragedy” 1993



11 responses »

  1. As you mentioned, the case study of Genie was unethical due to her inability to provide fully informed consent. However, the findings allowed psychologists to understand more about the critical stages of language development and how progression through these stages can be influenced by our immediate environment. Despite the fact that case studies can never be accurately replicated due to the range of extraneous variables that impact on the results, similar studies can be compared to assess any similarities and/or differences. For example, Genie never progressed beyond the acquisition of basic language; conversely Isabelle, a child who also suffered severe social isolation, was able to obtain normal use of language (R. Brown, 1958; K. Davis, 1947). The difference between these two cases being that Genie was not discovered until the age of thirteen, whereas Isabelle was discovered at the age of six – before she reached puberty. However, based on such little evidence it would be deterministic to assume that language development is not possible after puberty, as cause and effect cannot be established.

    References: R. Brown (1958) & K. Davis (1947) – as cited in Gleitman: p405

  2. Although the Genie experiment offered understanding of the critical stages of development, Genie was an incredibly rare case, and therefore her results cannot be generalisable to anybody else. As you have stated, it would be deterministic to assume that language development is not possible after puberty, however, at a very young age Genie was diagnosed with a mental disorder, which clearly would have affected her brain. Studies on Genie in her teenage years showed that the whole left side of her brain was not functioning at all, but we are not to know whether this is unique to Genie or true of all feral children.

    1. Russ Rymer, “Genie, A scientific Tragedy” 1993

    2. NOVA: Secret of the Wild Child. (Documentary about Genie), March 4, 1997

  3. Poor Genie was the victim of the most serve case of child isolation in America. She was born in 1957 with only 14-20 months into her life; just learning how to speak, doctors told her family that she seemed delayed, possibly retarded (Susan Curtiss, 1977). It was her father who became convinced that she was retarded and excluded her from the family at around 5 months old.

    It is quite distressing that a medical professional, quite openly diagnosed Genie at such an early age, when the reality was, he was unable to correctly diagnose her because she had a fever.
    It’s sad to think that down to her fathers illness, Genie suffered this terrible trauma.

    Although psychologies all jumped on the band wagon to study Genie, when news broke out.
    Given the circumstances, Genie was finally free from her abusive family; which had to be a good thing. Although she was studied, she was socialised into families who did try to help.

    It’s true that Psychologists were probably thinking more about themselves, than the actual welfare of Genie. But one psychologist in particular (Jean Butler, 1971) became an attachment for Genie and started to progress well. Sadly it is thought that Jean butler had alternative motives and just wanted to become famous. No-one will know her true intentions as she died in 1988.
    Genie was then passed around foster homes and became inverted once again until settling at a elderly residential home.

    There was a film made about Genie called Mocking birds don’t sing. This was directed by Harry Bromley in 2001. The link to the trailer can be found on you tube:

  4. The case of this extremely unfortunate child is not a black and white one: it is both research AND exploitation. Although the initial psychologists who conducted their tests on her may have had ulterior motives such as fame and professional recognition, they were still doing research, not parading her around as a circus freak. This then comes under the umbrella of ethics and the debate between Virtue and Consequentialism ethics. Virtue ethics would argue that although good has come out of the research into Genie, because the good intention of the researchers is questionable then it is indeed unethical. However, consequentialism would argue that although the actions against her were not kind or loving, the direct affect was a benefit in psychological understanding and therefore it was ethical.
    To take the view point of the Consequentialists, this research could be viewed as ethical as it allowed Psychologists the rare opportunity to test theories about child development, and compare them with a ‘natural, live’ situation, such as Lorenz’s (1935) theory of a critical period of social bonding and McGraw’s similar critical period theory for motor development (two factors that were severely impaired with Genie)

    Lorenz, K. (1935), and McGraw, M. (circa 1943) as cited by Scott, J.P., (1962). Critical Periods in Behaviour Development, Science Vol 138, 949-958.

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  5. There is also a similar case study looking into privation, however the study showed a completely different outcome than Genie. Koluchova (1972) reported the case of two identical twin boys in Czechoslovkia, who lived in an institution for 18 months before going to live with their father and stepmother. They were found in 1967, when they 7 years old and had grown up in a small, unheated closet and had also often been locked in the cellar and been harshly beaten. After their discovery, the twins spent time in a children’s home and a school for the mentally retarded before being fostered in 1969. At first, they were terrified and communicated mostly through gestures (they had little spontaneous speech), however both made steady progress, both socially and intellectually. A follow-up study, in 1976, showed that when they were 14 years old, they showed no psychopathic symptoms or unusual behaviour. By the age of 20, they had both completed an apprenticeship, were of an above average intelligence and still had good relationships with their foster mother, her relatives and their adoptive sisters. There are obvious differences between this study and the one of Genie; one being that the twins were never really alone, as they always had each other, whereas Genie was on her own. They were also at different ages when they were found, with Genie having gone through more critical development periods than the twins. There was also the difference that when both were discovered, Genie still had an unstable life, as her new attachment figure was taken away, whilst the twins had new stable one.

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  6. Of course this case will appear as unethically, mainly due to the lack of informed consent, however studies that were conducted on Genie, such as language development, were also conducted in order to help Genie, not harm her.
    I would like to highlight the point “It is clear that Genie also suffered from extreme psychological harm after the experiments were conducted, such as refusing to open her mouth after being abused” – This was not due to psychological experiments, this was because of the abuse she received whilst living with a foster family.
    It is true that it is unclear how the research benefited society, although case studies provide researches with rich in-depth data, it is difficult to generalise these results to others. It is also stated that research is unethical if the harm to those involved is greater than the benefit of the results on society.
    One thing that will remain a mystery is whether or not Genie’s mental and physical retardation was due to her upbringing or whether she was in fact born with it. Even after the years of study involving things such as brain scans, doctors and psychologists have been unable to determine which were the cause and the effect.

  7. Of course, it would be highly unethical if a psychologist were to carry out a study on a child by keeping them in a cellar for the first few years of their life. Therefore, when Gene was found, psychologists jumped at the chance to study her as her unfortunate ‘upraising’ (or lack of) was purely natural. Thus, the researchers knew that the data they collected would be away from the risk of any experimenter bias.

    Overall, Gene was exploited. Even though the findings have helped the progression of understanding human behaviour and the effects of privation, as samanthakatepsychology points out, we can’t generalise the findings as it was a case study. This leads us to the argument of individual differences. Thus, can we really look at Gene as ‘way forward’ or is she being exploited? I believe it to be the latter.

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