Terrifying toddlers for science: where do we draw the line?

Plus some weekly curated reads about vaccines, ill-considered weddings, and phalli

Thursday reading

  • Terrifying toddlers for science: where do we draw the line?

  • Scroll down for some reads from the week that will make you exclaim “What?!” or “I need to share this with all of my relatives and friends!” or “I should order tamales stat!,” plus a couple of not-quite-a-dick pics.

  • My book Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis, made a “most fascinating” list, which is totally appropriate if you know the associations of the word “fascinate.”


Should terrifying toddlers be allowed in the name of science?

Some recent research in the field of autism caught my eye this week, along with the eyes of a lot of other people because of how the toddlers in it were treated. It includes the following methods, all used on children around the age of 22 months.

  • The Stranger probe involved a female stranger wearing dark clothing, a hat, and sunglasses entering the room, approaching the child, and leaning toward the child for approximately 3 seconds (one trial).

  • The Objects condition included Spider (large mechanical spider crawling toward the child, three trials) and Dinosaur (a mechanical dinosaur with red light-up eyes approaching the child; three trials each object).

  • Masks involved a female stranger dressed in dark clothes and wearing three grotesque masks in succession (e.g. vampire, Star Wars character) entering the room briefly and maintaining an approximate 1.5-m distance from the child (three trials).

This process was inflicted on 64 toddlers for the purposes of research. The research question that required this level of psychological torture to answer? Based on self-cited prior work, these researchers wanted to see if autistic toddlers would pay less attention to a threat the adults in the room perceive as social and show different emotional regulation strategies compared with nonautistic toddlers.

I looked into the origins of this set of “probes,” which the authors cite as the Laboratory Temperament Assessment Battery – Locomotor Version (Lab‐TAB). More on that here. You can find descriptions of the original Lab-TAB episodes here. You’ll note that the two listed for fear fall far short of what’s described above.

Another version of it, this one for infants, uses strangers and then masks, as follows:

During Stranger Approach the child is placed in a high chair across the room from a door where a stranger (i.e., male tester unknown to infant) enters. The mother is also in the room but instructed not to interact with the infant. The Stranger Approach occurs in several stages. First, the stranger enters the room and waits for 10 s. Then the stranger slowly moves toward the infant stops approximately halfway into the room (10 s), saying “Hello [infant’s name]. I’m going to come a little closer to you now.” The stranger slowly walks close to the infant (10 s) and once the stranger arrives at the infant’s location, he kneels down and stares at the infant for 30 s.

For the Masks episode, the infant is presented with four increasingly scary masks for 10 s each. Each infant is presented the same masks in the same order; first, an evil cartoon queen, second, an old man, third, a green vampire mask, and lastly a gas mask.

And another toddler version here.

  • Fear: The level of negative affect experienced by the toddler, including unease and worry, in the presence of novel, non-social stimuli (3 total episodes).
    Lab-TAB episode example-“Stranger Approach”: An adult male stranger will approach the child in a standardized fashion. The elements of novelty and intrusiveness elicit various degrees of fearful distress and avoidance.

For this kind of research, clearance from a university’s ethics committee on research involving humans is required. This paper has a line that Human Investigation Committee of the Yale School of Medicine approved it. A previous publication in a different journal from the same author group and using this approach does not include that statement.

Curious about the bar that this committee at Yale might be setting, I googled the phrase “Yale human subjects research.” Clicking the first link, which read, “Human Research | It's Your Yale,” I was taken to a 404 page. I guess it’s not everyone’s Yale. [I found it eventually, just not at my Yale. But no information on where the bar would be set here.]

Yale is the birthplace of the (in)famous Milgram experiment, the one in which Stanley Milgram assessed the human tendency to obedience by having participants ostensibly shock other participants under a rational-sounding pretext. In reality, the recipients were not being shocked and were escalating their responses to “escalating voltage” in keeping with a pre-set script. To Milgram’s surprise, even when the participants administering the electric shocks could hear the recipients screaming, 65 percent of those pressing the shock button kept it up. They kept it up even to 450 volts, well after the script had called for the “recipients” to fall silent at 330 volts and no longer respond. Yes, they kept it up even though the implication was that the recipient was unconscious or dead.

The experiment generated a ton of controversy, and led to some sea changes in the principles—and legalities—of practice for people conducting psychological research. Among these, writes John Greenwood at Behavioral Scientist, is that psychologists should not conduct experiments that will cause participants serious distress.

Let us return to the toddlers.

The Strangers, Objects, Mask “probes” each lasted about 60 seconds, with an “effective exposure to threat” lasting about 30 seconds. In between, the toddlers got an average of 75 seconds to re-equilibrate—or in the authors’ words, “to ensure that the child’s affect returned to neutral before proceeding to the next probe.”

[I am in awe of the free use of the word “probe” in these studies.]

What they wanted to measure is how distressed these “probes” made the toddlers. For this purpose, the researchers recorded videos of the encounters and then coded them for “peak intensity of distress,” which they reduce to a jargon term, iDistress.

Based on the other paper in which they used this approach, here’s how they coded for iDistress:

Keep in mind that they did the Spider, Dinosaur, and Mask trials three times each for a total of 10 trials per child. Each trial, as they say, lasted about 60 seconds, so the children were subjected in total to a full hour of this, not including the on-average 75-second breaks in between to re-equilibrate.

Also, this: “A parent, seated within reach of the child in the testing room during the probes, was instructed to keep a neutral demeanor and refrain from interacting with the child unless in response to the child's distress.”

Studies I find outside of this author group that use some version of the Lab-TAB approach don’t seem to take things anywhere near this far. Instead, they use an “unpredictable mechanical toy” or a robot dog. Example:

The unpredictable mechanical toy was chosen to elicit fear and involved the presentation of a mechanical robot placed on a table in front of the child. The robot went toward the child, stopped in front of him and barked, and then moved back. The episode lasted 15 s and included 2 trials. Scoring for each trial was performed in 3 time intervals of 5 s. For each time interval, intensity of facial fear, distress vocalizations, bodily fear, escape, and startle response were coded. All measures were then averaged across time intervals to compute a score of Fear for each trial.

Another example:

At each year of assessment, child fear and distress were assessed using the unpredictable mechanical toy component of the Lab-TAB (Goldsmith & Rothbart, 1999). It closely followed the protocol of the Lab-TAB. However, for the purposes of the present study the mechanical toy dog used in Lab-TAB was replaced by a remote-controlled robot and the mother was asked to leave the room. An unfamiliar experimenter entered the room and placed the robot approximately 1.5 m away from the child, who was strapped into a child car seat. The experimenter made the robot approach the child, stopping approximately 15 cm from the child, while making movements with its arms and emitting noise. The robot then walked backward and stopped at the back of the room for about 10 s before moving forward again. This trial was repeated three times, in line with the Lab-TAB protocol.

The Mask, Stranger, and Object trials in these studies with autistic children are far darker, scarier sounding, and persistent. Why did these authors add a set of three scary masks on a person? Why did they use a spider and a dinosaur with flashing red eyes? Why did they do 10 trials in this study just to assess a child’s fear response when these other studies seem to rely on a single “fear” trigger and three trials at most?

Here’s what the federal government pays for this research:

Here is the authors’ conclusion on their most recent paper about benefits it offers humanity [with some well-aged references]:

The significance of this work is twofold. First, emotional reactivity constitutes an important contributor of social and emotional development [Emde, Gaensbauer, & Harmon, 1981; Izard, 2002]. Identification of atypical facets of emotional reactivity at the earliest time when ASD can be diagnosed reliably informs about factors shaping complex phenotypes and developmental outcomes of children with ASD and may assist in identification of novel treatment targets [perhaps not torturing children with creepy strange women in capes and vampire masks?]. Second, atypical emotional reactivity in early childhood predicts later onset of internalizing and externalizing symptoms [Colder et al., 2002; Putnam & Stifter, 2005] common in older children with ASD [Simonoff et al., 2008]. Considering the high prevalence of such symptoms in ASD, identifying early patterns of emotional reactivity in ASD may lead to better diagnostic precision in terms of early detection of comorbid psychopathology [if it wasn’t there already, perhaps the relentless fear induction from these experiments will induce it] in ASD and greater insight into emotional features that confer risk for affective and problem behaviors in this population.

Was it worth it? I don’t know about you, but I classify adults forcing an unpleasant experience repeatedly on a child who’s already expressed fear of it a “problem behavior.” I call forcing experimental conditions in which the child cannot even seek safety with a parent a “problem behavior.” I call subjecting toddlers, autistic or not, to a full hour of experiences that terrorize them a “problem behavior.”

In Milgram’s experiment, the people who were ostensibly being harmed were in on the scheme. That’s not something that can be said in this case. The emergent concern with the participants in Milgram’s study was that the people who did the shocking were extremely distressed even as they did it, a potential and obvious harm. The shocking thing about this “fear” research in toddlers is that the people doing the scaring don’t seem to have that distress. The other shocking thing is that the parents obediently sat by while this distress was inflicted again and again on their toddlers, something that they would (one hopes) never have done had this situation been in any other context.

And that context was the crux of Milgram’s experiments. The shockers kept shocking because an authority figure (“The Experimenter,” an actor dressed in a lab coat) was telling them to. The “Experimenter” even followed a series of escalating prompts to build on that sense of obedience:

Prod 1: Please continue.

Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.

Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

The two thirds of “shockers” who continued, even when they thought that the recipient might be unconscious or dead, did so out of a sense of obedience to this authority figure, this urgency that it was “essential” to the “experiment” that they do so. Convince people that something is for a higher good—and science, despite some bruises and dents in latter years still retains that aura—and what will they compromise on behalf of that?

You literally could not pay me enough to sit by while someone scared the shit out of one of my children—or someone else’s child—over and over and over again, for any reason. Yet because autism is such a Huge Mystery that Science Must Solve, this level of distress is viewed as an acceptable tradeoff in the name of that putative greater good.

Another notable claim about the Milgram experiments was that reportedly, even the people who stopped shocking the “recipient” did not rush to check on the potentially unconscious or dead victim or otherwise call for the experiments to end. I’d like to think that when it comes to subjecting toddlers, autistic or not, to experiments like those being done at Yale right now, today, we can do a little better than that.

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Reads around the web this week

In which science journalist Maryn McKenna, writing at Wired, highlights the consequences of not setting realistic expectations, expectations that the very unrealistic people in charge at the federal level right now have abjectly failed to set.

Speaking of setting expectations, Sarah Zhang, writing at The Atlantic, clarifies that a lot of us will be in limbo for awhile, so stay buckled, please.

They really have. You might want to find something to weight down the top of your head so it doesn’t pop off.

Speaking of weddings. Also, I am turning into an artificial intelligence nerdlette, and it was really fun to dig into this study and consider the upsides and downsides of such work.

This was published at Aeon a couple of years ago, but it dropped onto my radar again, and it’s such a good read.

Please send tamales to your friends and family. It’s what the best people do.

One more about vaccines, this time a Q&A with an expert, at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism

A seasonal spirit here

Time Bandits is one of my all-time favorite movies. Grillo-Marxuach was a writer and producer on Lost, and it so happens that Time Bandits is also one of his faves. It’s like opening a gift.


Penultimately, how about this amazing image of caecilian genitalia (caecilians are the amphibians almost no one’s ever heard of). This structure is called a phallodeum, which, despite appearances, has been the subject of controversy over whether it qualifies as a "true penis."


Speaking of penises, which I often find myself doing, I was so glad to see my book, PHALLACY, on Wired’s list of 26 of the most fascinating books they read in 2020. My gladness arises (sorry) in no small part because the origin of the word “fascinating” is “fascinum,” which was an object, such as an amulet, bearing a phallus with wings. The ancient Romans used these to ward off the evil eye and such.

Thanks for reading, and see you Sunday. Take care.

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