Disturbing Methods: A Dark Story of Genes, Adoptions, Dignity and Ethics

Frank Farley, Athena Linton, Valerie Cordero, Nicholas Galea, Kevin Larmour, Stephanie Miodus, Kelsey O’Donnell, William Pilny, Samantha Schwartz, and Zachary Shannon

Athena Linton, Zachary Shannon, Kelsey O’Donnell, Valerie Cordero, Frank Farley, Samantha Schwartz, Stephanie Miodus, Kevin Larmour, William Pilny, and Nicholas Galea

Athena Linton, Valerie Cordero, Nicholas Galea, Kevin Larmour, Stephanie Miodus, Kelsey O’Donnell, William Pilny, Samantha Schwartz, Zachary Shannon, & Frank Farley, frank.farley@temple.edu

A review of Three Identical Strangers
Director: Tim Wardle

Do the ends justify the means? Should the needs of one individual be put on hold in order to advance knowledge for an entire population? What responsibility do professionals have in protecting the rights of children? These questions are at the heart of Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers,” the true-life story of triplets separated as children and adopted as a part of a (cloaked) psychological experiment.

Peter Neubauer, the late child psychiatrist responsible for this research project, sought to further the research begun by twin studies that intended to look at the outcomes of nature versus nurture, considering the effects of different parents and the dimension of socio-economic status. This study took place before the advent of the modern Institutional Review Board and well after the Nuremberg Trials. There are many facets to this project that would signal red flags to professionals in the field today. The cool, detached attitude of the researchers is concerning, indeed alarming. The blatant disregard for the well-being of the adoptive boys in question highlights the importance of responsibility in research, in a story where accountability is almost nonexistent and “do no harm” seems to be a lost cause.

While all three triplets, raised separately but ultimately united after 19 years, probably suffered from years without their biological brothers, it is triplet Eddie’s suicide that truly underscores the dire consequences of treating humans like lab rats. There apparently were one or more other suicides among study participants other than the central participants—that is, the triplets of the film. One might wonder if perhaps the triplets would have fared better never knowing this experiment had happened to them. The joy of reunion is overshadowed by the dark repercussions of a research experiment whose sense of ethics was so skewed that the results were never published and are under lock and key until 2066.

Several concepts are notable in the film that would be considered bad research practice in the context of the study, such as confirmation bias and apparent lack of informed consent from biological and adoptive parents. Film viewers with no background in research methods or psychology would be understandably appalled by such a research undertaking. Although this film does not represent current acceptable design in the field of psychological research, it is a shout-out to remember the history of research and not make the same mistakes! No one is infallible but psychological research that does not consider the potential harm a study can cause individuals and only sees the research goal undermines the very science it attempts to advance.

(Authors’ Note: The authors are, other than Frank Farley, students in his graduate class at Temple University)

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