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Moral and Ethical Implications of the Neubauer Experiments

Many have argued that progress cannot be obtained without some kind of sacrifice. They teach us in economics that there is no such thing as a “free lunch”, meaning that something must be lost in order for anything to be gained. Newton’s laws of motion dictate the same principle on the physical level. Similar concepts have also been applied to scientific discovery as well. Whether it is time, resources, reputation, or even freedom, it appears that there is some kind of proverbial toll that must be paid in the name of growth. However, uncertainty and controversy arise when the exact limit of these sacrifices must be defined. How much are we, as a society, willing to give for the pursuit of knowledge? Should this line be definitive and universal or science far too nuanced to establish such limitations? It should be noted that members of the scientific community only just recently began asking these questions and it took quite a bit of loss for these restrictions to be established. Without some level of moral oversight, the scientific community will forced to be reactionary instead of preventative when handling the consequences of more controversial studies. This can be seen in the experiments of Dr. Peter Neubauer, who for over 20 years conducted a widescale experiment that made these questions not only relevant but their answers undeniably necessary.

Unusual in nature and unorthodox in reputation, the Neubauer experiments were conducted from about 1960 until late 1980 in the New York metropolitan area . Using prominent adoption firm the Louise Wise Agency as the source of his subjects, Neubauer and his team separated identical twins and triplets, paired them with families of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, and regularly studied them over the course of their lives. Recorded on camera, they would have the children perform a range of tests in order to evaluate their developmental progress and record onset psychological traits. Some of the tests had the children perform various tasks or complete specific puzzles, while others would simply be periods of interaction and observation. In doing so, they were able to track the children’s development and general reaction to their personal environment. The parents were not aware that their adopted children had identical siblings, nor were they correctly informed as to the nature of the study . As explained in the adoption agreement, the Louise Wise Agency told the parents that the children were simply a part of an adoption study, meaning that any consent given was given under false and withheld information .

There is some discrepancy as to what exactly Neubauer was attempting discover through these tests and observations, and even the study as a whole. Former research assistant Dr. Lawrence Perlman, who worked with Neubauer from 1968-69 and the only individual who directly performed these tests that is willing to talk, claims that they were attempting to evaluate the role of parenting in the development of children . It is for this reason that Neubauer had these separated twins and triplets placed into families of different financial background. The most famous and well publicized example of this occurrence, the one that I will be citing countless times as it is incredibly well documented, was when three triplets were separated and placed into an affluent household, a middle-class household, and a working class household . However, given the prevalent background mental health issues within the subjects that have discovered they were a part of this study, it has been speculated that such conditions may have been a factor in the experiment as well. Unfortunately, no conclusion was ever published and all the findings are locked away in the archives of Yale University until 2065, so the true nature of this experiment is forced to remain nothing more than a speculation.

I would also like to note that as far as any research can indicate, there is no other experiment of this caliber and nature documented in recent, conventional science. As former Neubauer research assistant and decorated professor Dr. Natasha Josefowitz states it in the documentary Three Identical Strangers, “All that research should have been seen. This study was the first and it’s also the last. It will never be done again. It will never be replicated. It’s monumental. It’s a monumental study”. I would like to note that studies on twins and other iterations of identical siblings are actually quite common but are simply not conducted in such a secretive manner that borders on downright nefarious. For instance, even ranging from 1999 to this year, the International Journal of Eating Disorders, the American Journal of Medical Genetics, and the Association for Psychological Science have all released twin studies that were peer reviewed and met the moral standards set by the scientific community . Comparisons between the methods that Dr. Neubauer used and the experiments performed on twins by the Nazis have also been drawn but I feel that such a juxtaposition is immeasurably insensitive and a bit far reaching. I would also like to include that Dr. Neubauer was an Austrian refugee during WWII, so just parallels only serve to personally dishonor his memory.

I would now like to discuss the specifics practices from the study that serve as an ethical violation towards its subjects and their families. The first infraction that I would like to cite actually falls under the actions of the adoption agency. The fact that that purposefully and intentionally withheld pertinent information from the adopting parents is not only dishonest but irresponsible. Additionally, the fact that they did so solely on the grounds of contributing to a psychological study is quite frankly a bit baffling. They did not do this in an attempt to help or protect the children or their families but did so in the name of science. Which, in itself once again raises the question how much should we be willing to sacrifice in the name of knowledge? In the case of the triplets that received quite a bit of fame after accidentally meeting each other, there were instances in which a breach in the confidentiality of the study could have possibly helped them a great deal in their personal lives given their issues with mental health and subsequent institutionalization. But, once again this is purely speculative.

In terms of the ethical violations committed by Dr. Neubauer and his research team, the issue of consent plays a major role. There were multiple alternative channels that he could have taken prior to blatantly lying to his subjects and their families. Granted had he done so, Dr. Neubauer would have likely had to change the nature and execution of his experiment but I do not think that is an unreasonable toll for him to pay. On a fundamental level, he should have allowed the adoption agency to disclose the kinship of his subjects or at least offered the option (given varying preferences between opened and closed adoption). I do not think that simply informing the adopting parents that their child had identical siblings would have influenced the results of his study and observations. Once again speculating, I would posit that his experiment would have been able to go on for a lot longer than it did had he provided that baseline layer of transparency. Beyond the consequences of the clandestineness surrounding this case however, I do not want to understate the absolute necessity for fundamental consent within a study. Obviously there should be consent at every step of an experiment but the fact that he lied about the very nature and purpose of what he and his researchers were doing is a serious problem.

With all of that being said, I do think that had this study been executed properly, it could have provided a great deal of insight into the role of genetics and environment towards juvenile development. The question regarding the impact of both nature and nurture is raised in nearly every psychology class that I have taken and the answer is always the same: “We don’t know for sure. It might be a combination of both”. I can understand Dr. Neubauer’s desire to contribute some sort of definitive jumping off point and his study was not only ambitious but fairly well structured. It also shouldn’t be overlooked that the initial conception of this experiment was concocted in the mid-1950’s during a time in which the notion of personal autonomy held a slightly different meaning. After all, this study was approved and funded by a series of governing bodies so it’s not as if Dr. Neubauer went rogue or broke any laws. If anything, the research he performed is an exaggerated timepiece of a bygone era that unfortunately possessed such a magnitude that it permanently effected people’s lives. I would argue that he was able to see the shifting priorities of the scientific community leading into the 21st century which is possibly why locked his research away in the Yale archives. Additionally, without the presence of a formal conclusion the raw data from collected over the course of 20 years could have possibly detrimental effects on the unknowing subjects.

I feel as though I must mention that much like there cannot be progress without some sort of sacrifice, no action occurs without consequence. Although I have pointed out the personal deprivation that resulted from the secrecy of this study, I do think that it helped shine a light into what we as a society value in our exploration for knowledge. Additionally, I would argue that the discovery of the scope of this experiment helped establish a baseline of consent and transparency when it comes to experiments that require more discretion in nature. Also, following the explosive media attention that the triplets received in the early 80’s, an appreciation for the insights that identical siblings can contribute to developmental and behavioral psychology was established. When the very existence of this study was uncovered, the public’s reaction provided a great deal of insight into what we value as a society and just how much “sacrifice” we are willing to allow in the name of scientific progress. However, this raises an additional final question: was everything that was lost because of this study justified?

On a fundamental level, no. As long as it can be avoided, I do not think that any study should force their subjects to face lifelong consequences. When researching the Neubauer Experiments, I just kept thinking over and over “these are people’s lives”. Now that may seem like a fairly innocuous sentiment but Neubauer really did take the lives, experiences, and memories of a whole group of people into his own hands and dictated what their lives would look like simply in a quest to help answer a question. This very much rejects the notion of “value free ideals” because we cannot allow scientists to exist above what we deem to be morally valuable. A question, I would like to add, that is so abstract and open to interpretation that no real and definitive progress stood to be made from his tests and observations. So yes, progress cannot be made without giving something up but we will never move forward when with each step we take in the name of science we ultimately take two steps back. If as a society we condone experiments of this nature, we actively place more value in the abstract pursuit of knowledge over what we deem to be the human experience.


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