Lovaas’ Punishment of Electric Shock

As gleaned from the book, NeuroTribes:

In the book, Science and Human Behaviour (1951), B. F. Skinner cautioned on the use of aversive. He explained that while aversive may seem to stop undesirable behaviour quickly, the behaviour often returns with a vengeance after the punishment stops, because one has not been taught more adaptive ways to behave. Also, punishment creates fear, guilt and shame, resulting in less learning overall. 

Skinner also advised against the use of aversive in research. He propounded, “In the long run, punishment, unlike reinforcement, works to the disadvantage of both the punished organism and the punishing agency.” 

O. I. Lovaas disregarded the advice when working with Beth, an autistic child. He punished her for a range of behaviour that included hand flapping, rocking, spinning and other forms of self-stimulation. Based on his own experiments, he concluded that stimming made autistic children less sensitive to sounds, which hindered learning. He also believed that extinguishing this “garbage behaviour” would reduce a major source of stigma for autistic people and their families. 

Eventually, researchers would discover that autistic people stim to reduce anxiety – and also simply because it feels good. In fact, harmless forms of self-stimulation may facilitate learning by freeing up executive-functioning resources in the brain that would otherwise be devoted to suppressing them. 

[This reinforces my previous post on the importance of skepticism towards authority.]

After Lovaas’ work with Beth, he conducted a series of experiments with a pair of five year old twin boys named Mike and Marty.

For one of his first rounds of experiments, his punishment was exceptionally loud sound. He aimed blasts of “well over 100” decibels at them – comparable to the roaring of a power saw at close range. His aim was to produce “pain or fear” so that they may learn to seek safety in adults. The results were disappointing as the twins did not respond to the punishment that could have caused physical damage to the eardrum

Hence, Lovaas turned to electric shock. He argued, “It is important to note, in view of the moral and ethical reasons which might preclude the use of electric shock, that their future was certain institutionalisation.”

He taped strips of metal foil to the floor and wired them to a modified Faraday coil. When the grad students tested the aversive barefooted, they remarked that it was “definitely painful and frightening”.

In a typical round of trials, a researcher would say “Come here,” beckoning to the boy with outstretched arms. If he didn’t approach within three seconds, he would get a shock. The same procedure was repeated over and over again, for hundreds of trials. In just a few sessions, the twins learned to jump into the researchers’ arms to avoid the painful shocks. Lovaas deemed these experiments a stunning success.

In a subsequent round of trials, instead of the electrified floor, he employed a remote-controlled device (used in canine obedience tests) affixed to the boys’ buttocks. A researcher would ask either twin to  “hug me” or “kiss me” and apply shock if the boy didn’t do so in three seconds. Lovaas noted that their behaviour “changed markedly toward increased affection.”

Next, Lovaas subjected the twins to strict behaviourist diet: no food at all, seven days a week, but the token scraps earned by performing a complex social task while pressing a bar to avoid shock. Water deprivation was also stringently enforced. 

In order to legitimise his unorthodox techniques, he invited members of the press down to the lab to watch him in action. Before his demonstration, he showed them footage of children who had attempted to chew through their own limbs or bite off their nails with their teeth. His message was clear: This is what autism looks like if it is left untreated. 

Even journalists who might normally be troubled by the use of electric shock, were persuaded by his solemn pronouncements that “No one punishes who isn’t prepared to devote a major part of his life to that child. Nobody punishes a child who doesn’t also love that child.” One reporter was so impressed that he dubbed Lovaas a visionary – a “poet with a cattle prod”. 

Life magazine brought Lovaas to international fame with a profile that ran under the headline “Screams, Slaps, and Love.” It praised his work as “a surprising, shocking treatment that helps far-gone mental cripples” and the article shaped public perceptions of autism for decades to come.

It is clear to our conscience that the above punishments amount to abuse. It is appalling that many doctors, researchers, students, journalists and parents deemed these methods as acceptable. Hence, it is important to gain more information across sources and regard loud voices – of authority, of media – with circumspect. Also, one needs to form one’s own moral and ethical judgment by reading more.

Furthermore, the use of electric shock tools is not just a question of “Is this ethical when used on a child deemed mentally handicapped?”; it is also a question of “Is this ethical at all?” The response of the child mimicked that of an animal: I would do anything to avoid pain. What makes it unacceptable in the former and acceptable in the latter? 

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