The Psychologist Who Hid Beneath Beds
The beginnings of covert observation, as a technique of scientific inquiry, were innocent enough. Every evening at around 7:30 p.m., during the spring of 1922, Professor Henry T. Moore would leave his house in New York City and take a long, slow stroll along the stretch of Broadway known as the Great White Way, because of the brilliant marquee and billboard lights that illuminated it. He walked behind couples arguing, stood beside businessmen chatting at bus stops, and waited outside theatres to hear people coming out from the shows. And always, he jotted down the remarks he heard in his notebook, though often he had to strain to hear what people were saying over the noise of traffic rumbling past.
Moore's reason for this systematic eavesdropping was to study whether men and women emphasized different subjects in their everyday conversations. Among other things, he discovered that women talked about men far more often than men talked about women. This use of surreptitious surveillance was deceptive, but only mildly so. After all, his subjects were in a public location. They had to assume other people might overhear what they were saying. Moore merely took advantage of this assumption for the sake of his scientific research.
Two years later, Carney Landis and Harold Burtt extended Moore's research by eavesdropping at a wider variety of locations. Wearing rubber-heeled shoes and cultivating an 'unobtrusive manner', they loitered around Columbus, Ohio railroad stations, department stores, and hotel lobbies, taking notes on every conversation they overheard. Like Moore, they concluded, 'Persons play a small part in man's thought and a large part in woman's.'
It was in 1938 at Bryn Mawr, a women's liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, that the technique of covert listening advanced to its next logical stage. Mary Henle was conducting research there for her doctorate in psychology. She had been intrigued by a hypothesis once made by the child psychologist Jean Piaget, who had observed that children, when talking, make a large number of references to themselves. Attributing this self-absorption to childhood 'egocentricity', Piaget theorized that as children grew older and became more socialized, they would cease to be so inwardly focused, causing the number of self-referential remarks made by them to decline. Henle decided to put this theory to the test by surreptitiously listening in on the conversations of adults and recording the number of times they referred to themselves. Luckily she had a large pool of adults ready at hand to eavesdrop on — her fellow Bryn Mawr students.
To conduct her research, Henle enlisted the help of her friend Marian Hubbell, and together they launched an all-out spy operation. But unlike previous researchers, they didn't limit themselves to collecting data in public areas. Instead, they extended their investigation into the most private of locations. As they put it, 'Unwitting subjects were pursued in the streets, in department stores, and in the home.' They crouched down in the bathroom stalls of the women's dormitory to overhear washroom gossip; they lifted up phone receivers to monitor intimate discussions; and they snuck into the rooms of their fellow students and hid beneath their beds.
Spying on young women in dorm rooms is the stuff of prurient fantasy, so one can't help but wonder what the two researchers might have seen or overheard. Were they privy to whispered confessions of sexual secrets shared by room-mates? Did they overhear anything potentially incriminating? Also, how long did Henle and Hubbell hide beneath the beds? Were they ever caught? Unfortunately, our curiosity about these matters must remain unfulfilled, because the researchers didn't share many details. They merely referred to the data-collection process as 'difficult', and left it at that.
As for their results, it turned out Piaget was wrong. Adults, at least those eavesdropped on by Henle and Hubbell, talked about themselves just as much as children did. The number of selfreferencing remarks for both groups came in at around 40 per cent. But really, who cares? (Except for a few psychologists.) Henle and Hubbell's study is definitely one of those in which the method of inquiry was far more interesting than what was being studied. In fact, the study would probably have sunk quietly out of sight if not for the unorthodox research technique. Instead, it's earned a minor but recurring place in textbook discussions of research ethics, accompanied by warnings that hiding beneath beds is not a recommended method for conducting fieldwork.
Henle and Hubbell may have been too discreet to report on all the juicy details of their research, but it was only a matter of time before someone whose motives were less pure used covert observation in a more salacious way. That moment arrived in 1955, when a bordello opened in San Francisco. On the surface it seemed like any other of the city's similar establishments. The interior was garishly decorated. Pictures of cancan dancers and dominatrixes hung on the walls. Sex toys could be found in every drawer, and the drinks flowed freely. But what the johns who accompanied the prostitutes inside couldn't have known was that every move they made in there was being observed by CIA-employed psychologists hiding behind one-way mirrors. Nor did they know their drinks had been spiked with LSD, though they probably guessed something had been slipped to them when they woke up the next morning after what must have seemed like the strangest night of their lives.
The CIA called it Operation Midnight Climax. Its purpose was to provide the agency with real-world psychological data about the use of LSD on unwitting subjects — such as whether the drug could be used as a truth serum or as a brainwashing tool — as well as to give their agents a chance to hone their sexual blackmail techniques. American taxpayer dollars at work!
Just as with Henle and Hubbell's research, it would be interesting to know exactly what the CIA researchers saw and overheard — the dizzying spiral of their subjects' minds into LSD-laced psychosis — but those details remain a state secret. The operation shut down in 1963, and by the time its existence was publicly revealed during Senate hearings in the mid-1970s, all the relevant documents had been heavily censored. It's not even known what became of the unwitting participants, or what long-term effects they might have suffered.
Lovers, Friends, Slaves
Of course, the CIA is in the business of spying, which doesn't make its actions in Midnight Climax acceptable, but it does make them not entirely surprising. That same excuse, however, doesn't apply to the social worker Martha Stein.
Concerned that there was a lack of scientific information about the behaviour of the male customers of call girls, in 1968 Stein undertook a four-year study of this subject. With the cooperation of sixty-four New York City call girls, who apparently 'found it gratifying that a well-educated researcher respected them and considered their work important', Stein started spying on the full range of activities that occurred between prostitutes and their johns. In many cases, the call girls already had one-way mirrors and peepholes installed in their apartments, either for the benefit of voyeuristic clients or to allow them to observe a girl-in-training. In such cases, Stein's job was easy. But at other times, Stein had to hide in closets, furtively peering out through a crack in the door to see what was happening. The call girls assisted by making sure their clients were facing away from her.
Unlike Henle and Hubbell and the CIA researchers, Stein wasn't shy about publicly revealing every explicit detail she observed. Thanks to her careful research, we know that of the 1,230 men she observed, 4 per cent were cross dressers, 11 per cent asked for threesomes, 17 per cent wanted to be tied up during sex, 30 per cent enjoyed anal stimulation, 36 per cent French-kissed the call girls, and almost all of them wanted fellatio. Her publisher, hopeful that such frankness would translate into brisk sales, heavily promoted her book (Lovers, Friends, Slaves: The Nine Male Sexual Types) in newspapers such as the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and the New York Times. Readers were promised a voyeuristic peek through 'see-through mirrors to watch more than 1,200 men in their sexual transactions'. Stein fully delivered.
Of course, this brief history of the use of covert observation in scientific studies shouldn't scare us into paranoically checking beneath our beds or in our closets. Most psychologists, we can be sure, aren't constantly spying on their neighbours. However, if you do find yourself in an unfamiliar setting such as a hotel or dorm room, a quick check around for any errant researchers might not be a bad idea.
Excerpted from Electrified Sheep by Alex Boese. Copyright 2012 by Alex Boese. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books.