Created By: glisglis on May 27, 2013 Last Edited By: glisglis on May 22, 2014
Troped

Unwitting Test Subject

Humans who don\'t have a clue that they\'re part of an experiment

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This trope occurs when a thinking subject (a human, sentient animal, etc.) is part of a scientific experiment and has no idea that it's being experimented on and has not explicitly consented to the experiment. Usually, in such stories, there is some surreal and alienating moment in which the subject (or audience) realizes this after The Reveal, an unmasking or a series of clues in the story.

Unwitting experimental subjects are entities that embody the experience of being caught up in a maze like a rat, being a guinea pig for the scientific-industrial complex and/or some mad scientist's eerie human experimentation, done for the sake of satisfying scientific curiosity. Subjects are unaware for a time that they're actively being creeped and experimented upon for a certain period of time. However, there could be copious amounts of unconscious subjects falling victim to Playing with Syringes or Strapped to an Operating Table, and maybe even the evoking of an Eye Scream. There's certainly overlap with They Would Cut You Up.

Experiments like this are carried out by The Conspiracy, an Ancient Conspiracy, The Syndicate or The Government who have their own inscrutable motives. These bad boys might, in turn, have a Chessmaster who plans and runs it, making sure all the while that the unwitting subjects remain so. Sometimes one of the test subjects turns out to be working for the bad guys, in which case, the conspirator participates in a masquerade to keep his or her true intentions from the subject(s).

The difference between an Unwitting Test Subject and Tested on Humans is that with the latter some sort of weapon or destructive device is tested on a subject for show; for example, to humorous effect, just as a more or less random target to demonstrate how awesomely powerful a weapon is. A person who's a victim of Tested on Humans pretty quickly notices that s/he's the test subject, that is, the effects are immediate and plain to the subject/victim. Unwitting experimental subjects, in contrast, show up many times in the psychological horror or psychological thriller genres.

The experiment doesn't necessarily have to actually be shown to be an experiment. The story could be an Ontological Mystery, which the character is faced with after You All Meet in a Cell or You Wake Up in a Room. That is to say, the work might not have any visible scientists (to the audience or to the characters) who are performing the experiment, the purpose of the experiment may not be apparent or it may not be clear that it's an experiment at all. It could just be hinted at by various means (say, by the mathematical or vaguely scientific nature of the environment the characters find themselves in), or just implied in some clever way.

On the Older Than Feudalism level, this trope could be placed in the God testing Abraham's and Job's faith arena. The trope has been active since the '30s mostly in sci-fi works, but shows no signs of becoming discredited.

Contrast Professor Guinea Pig, compare Guinea Pig Family. May involve a Disposable Vagrant or Condemned Contestant and an Evilutionary Biologist. If the humans are seen as a vast philosophical computer simulation, then compare with the Wetware CPU.


Examples

Anime and Manga
  • Soul Eater. One of the first things we learn about Dr. Franken Stein in the second volume is that he used to perform experiments on Spirit Albarn while the latter was asleep, without his finding out. This is later played for perverse humor, when Stein asks Spirit if he noticed that he swapped his toes around.

Film
  • The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, directed by Werner Herzog. A semi-fictionalized account of the true story of a young boy who spent the first seventeen years of his life in a cellar without any human contact. He's fed, clothed and bathed by a mysterious man in a black overcoat who drugs him in order to prevent any contact. It's suspected that this was part of an early rogue experiment in psychology.
  • Scanners, directed by David Cronenberg, features a Super Breeding Program experiment performed by a pharmaceutical corporation on unwitting pregnant women with the goal of world domination. A drug, ostensibly for morning sickness, is administered in order to encourage the development of psychic abilities in their fetuses. The reveal comes when the protagonist realizes that his own psychic abilities came about as the result of those experiments.
  • In The Cube, six people from diverse backgrounds and with differing abilities find themselves in a vast mathematical and geometric maze that contains booby-traps. The very nature of the maze is left up for grabs, but it's hinted at that it's a scientific device, perhaps built by a government (or not), that serves no conceivable purpose, but maybe once did.
  • The Kovak Box involves a scientist involved in a massive government conspiracy to control society through implants that induce people to commit suicide. It involves using unwitting human subjects in the preliminary phases to test whether social engineering can be reliably and efficiently achieved.
  • The sentient chimpanzee, Caesar, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is forced to come to terms with the fact that his entire reason for existing and being sentient was the result of an experiment carried out on his mother, who was terminated.
  • A broad and overarching example of this in Prometheus, when the humans realize that the aliens were doing genetic manipulation experiments and probably were responsible for 'seeding' (see: Panspermia) Earth with the DNA necessary for establishing the human species.
  • The 2013 film Dark Skies has this trope as well, when the two protagonists realize that aliens are using them (perhaps) as experimental subjects for creepily incomprehensible reasons.

Literature
  • While very much a borderline case, Mikhail Bulgakov's satirical novel Heart of a Dog (1925) could technically exhibit this trope. A street dog (in many ways, a Disposable Vagrant) is taken in by a surgeon who implants him with human glands to learn of the effects. He learns to speak and takes on human qualities mostly the negative ones. While the dog is objectively not sentient before the operation, because of the characteristically human way the thoughts of the dog are presented to the reader, he could be considered sentient. However, throughout, it's fairly clear that the dog does not know that he's part of an experiment at first.
  • Isaac Asimov
    • "Breeds There a Man...?" A brilliant physicist comes to believe that aliens are conducting experiments with civilizations all over the universe, and ours is close to a point where measures are being taken to shut it down.
    • In "Jokester", it is discovered that humor is a psychological study tool imposed from without by extraterrestrials studying mankind.
  • House of Stairs, a young-adult science-fiction novel by William Sleator features a group of children with fundamentally differing and conflicting personalities inexplicably imprisoned in a surrealistic environment, which calls to mind an experimental labyrinth, who are subjected to various trials. It's revealed at the end that a totalitarian government is testing a psychologist's theories about conditioning. The experiment is a "failure" because two of the children were prepared to starve to death rather than obey a conditioning stimulus.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The central revelation in the story is that Earth's purpose is an experiment/computer program from extraterrestrials in order to determine the meaning of life.
  • A major plot point of the Confederation of Valor novels. In Valor's Trial it turns out that a war has been started and encouraged as an sociological experiment by extraterrestrials.

Live-Action TV
  • The Outer Limits and The New Outer Limits
    • Episode and remake of "A Feasibility Study". A random neighborhood from a typical suburban town is transported to an alien planet in order to determine whether the inhabitants are suitable for the environment because they need suitable slaves compatible with the aliens' planet.
    • Episode "Nightmare". A group of United Earth troops is captured by the alien Ebons and subjected to interrogation using physical and psychological torture. At the end it turns out to be a cooperative study between the Earth and Ebon governments to determine how well human troops can withstand punishment without breaking.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
    • Episode "Allegiance". One of the central protagonists suddenly finds himself locked in a room with random people, representing an experimental subject group, whose interpersonal reactions are being tested. After much ado, they finally realize that their responses to certain stimuli are being tested in some psychological behavior experiment by a group of aliens inclined to scientific curiosity.
    • Episode "Schisms". Weird things start to happen on the Enterprise: Riker can't get a good night's sleep, there's a bacterial infection in Geordi's neural implants, Data's internal chronometer shows 90 missing minutes, several people are having panic reactions to ordinary objects, and there's a subspace rift in a cargo bay. Eventually the affected personnel get together and piece together their memories. In a chilling scene, they realize that each of them has been kidnapped into another universe, Strapped to an Operating Table and subjected to medical experimentation while they slept.
  • Star Trek: Voyager episode "Scientific Method". The characters' bodies are being manipulated and monitored without their knowledge by invisible aliens who are desperate to achieve medical knowledge at any cost. There are unexplained injuries and death, and it's up to one of the crew-members to alert the others without alerting the alien observers who are constantly present (Invisible to Normals) that they are on to them, which would result in the experimenters taking punitive action.
  • An unintentional version happens in the NCIS episode "Double Blind". A Navy cook is being followed and doesn't know why. It turns out he signed up for a study on the effects of Big Brother on people's lives, then forgot about it entirely after suffering a concussion.

Newspaper Comics
  • Calvin and Hobbes features this in a nightmare of Calvin's, where he is kidnapped by aliens.
  • The Far Side. Two researchers reveal to the nerdy-looking dictator of a small country that it was all a sociological experiment, that his name is really Edward Belcher, and it's time to go home.

Religion
  • In the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, in a forerunner to the Milgram experiment, God runs an experiment to determine the extent of Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son on an altar. At the last second, though, God says, "Whoa, dude, that's okay. Just checking."
  • In the Book of Job, God makes a bet with Satan that Job won't waver in his faith. In an interesting study with perhaps one of the most controversial yet unquestionable Institutional Human Study Review Board approvals ever, God gives permission for Satan to run through a series of physical and psychological tortures to test Job's behavioral response.

Theater
  • Miss Evers' Boys. A stageplay by David Feldschuh about the infamous Tuskegee experiment (19321972), in which poor, African-American sharecroppers in Alabama were used by the government to study the long-term progression of untreated syphilis without their being told they suffered from it. It's told from the perspective of the nurse who worked on the study.

Video Games
  • In the Fallout franchise, residents of hundreds of separate subterranean bunkers, called 'vaults,' were unwittingly subjected to various large-scale (controlled) experiments, locked in and monitored closely. For example, in one vault, the residents were divided up into a red and blue group just to observe the long-term effects of that social division.

Web Comic

Real Life
  • From the 1950s up to the late '60s, the US government carried out large-scale experiments in psychological interrogation and conditioning sometimes involving powerful psychoactive drugs on unwilling and unwitting populations. Operation Midnight Climax, for example, involved the CIA recruiting prostitutes who would dose their clients, who were observed behind a one-way mirror, with LSD on whom sexual blackmail techniques would be tested.
  • The US government carried out experiments to determine the effects of radiation on the human body. Schoolchildren's milk and prisoners' testicles were irradiated all to see what the effects might be without their having been told.
  • Various language-deprivation experiments were carried out by powerful leaders throughout history on unwitting children in order to ascertain the natural language. The Greek historian Herodotus in Histories famously describes one in which children were deprived of all external speech by the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I (664610 BC). He concluded that the natural language sounded like Phrygian, a language spoken in what would be today's Turkey.

Community Feedback Replies: 37
  • May 27, 2013
    Koveras
    How about a shorter title, e.g. Unwitting Test Subject?

    This would a subtrope of Tested On Humans.
  • May 27, 2013
    glisglis
    I think that's a great idea. We should somehow fix the Tested On Humans trope, though, because right now it just refers to weapons and destructive devices being tested on humans, not involvement in experimentation in general. Could that be made more general? (I'm new here.) 'Experiments On Humans' might be a good new trope name if we can't change/widen the parameters of the Tested On Humans trope, with 'Unwitting Experimental Subject' then being a subtrope of 'Experiments on Humans.' Any thoughts on that or the name?
  • May 27, 2013
    Arivne
    Live Action TV
    • Star Trek The Next Generation
      • Episode "Schisms". Weird things start to happen on the Enterprise: Riker can't get a good night's sleep, there's a bacterial infection in Geordi's neural implants, Data's internal chronometer shows 90 missing minutes, several people are having panic reactions to ordinary objects, and there's a subspace rift in a cargo bay. Eventually the affected personnel get together and piece together their memories. In a chilling scene, they realize that each of them has been kidnapped into another universe and subjected to medical experimentation while they slept.
  • May 27, 2013
    reub2000
    • Many of the subjects in MKULTRA where unaware that they where being experimented on.
  • May 27, 2013
    Lumpenprole
    Literature: the childrens' (!!!) book House Of Stairs features a group of children inexplicably imprisoned in a surrealistic environment. It turns out in the end that a totalitarian government is testing a psychologist's theories about conditioning. The experiment is a "failure" because two of the children were prepared to starve to death rather than obey a conditioning stimulus.
  • May 27, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    Anime And Manga
    • Soul Eater: One of the first things we learn about Dr. Franken Stein is that he used to experiment on Spirit Albarn while the latter was asleep. This is later played for humor, when Stein asks Spirit if he noticed that Stein swapped his toes around.
  • May 27, 2013
    glisglis
    Thanks for those. They're great. What do you think of the description? I've been trying to tweak it. Do you think it's clear and that it isn't too long?
  • May 28, 2013
    Duncan
    In the Isaac Asimov short story Jokester, it is discovered that humor is a psychological study tool imposed from without by extraterrestrials studying mankind.
  • May 28, 2013
    Antigone3
    The Tuskegee syphilis experiment might fit here, given the levels of ethical violations and the fact that none of the men were ever told they had syphilis.
  • May 28, 2013
    Earnest
  • May 28, 2013
    randomsurfer
    In The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (all versions) it turns out that all of Earth is an experiment/computer program in order to determine the Question to the Ultimate Anser.
  • May 28, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    @OP: Um, you know the examples need publishing years only when there are several works with the same name out there? Especially that "since 2004" you added to my Soul Eater example is just stupid. If you're not planning to make changes in every single trope page on this site besides this one, you should probably get rid of the needless dates.
  • May 28, 2013
    glisglis
    The dates are only for my own reference in the draft stage. I want to know where the originators are. I was also going to put everything in alphabetical order.
  • May 28, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    ^ Fine, I guess... as long as you remember to remove them before launching.
  • May 28, 2013
    StarSword
    Literature:
  • May 28, 2013
    glisglis
    I took off the spoiler tags because just by being placed in this trope we know that there was a large experiment.
  • May 31, 2013
    StarSword
    TV:
  • June 1, 2013
    Topazan
    Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has done this a few times. link link link link link.

    Those are the ones I can think of.
  • June 1, 2013
    glisglis
    Hahaha. :) Thanks! I'll add them.
  • June 2, 2013
    Omeganian
    Another story by Asimov that fits the pattern is Breeds There a Man...? There, a man believes that aliens are conducting experiments with civilizations all over the universe, and ours is close to a point where measures are being taken to shut it down. The ending strongly implies he is right.
  • June 2, 2013
    glisglis
    ^Thanks!! That's excellent. It's becoming clear that Asimov kind of established this trope. I removed the final sentence because I didn't want to spoil it for anyone. I think it's still clear that it's an unwitting experimental subject story. The examples are really getting rounded out.
  • June 2, 2013
    Koveras
    @OP: Why do you prefer the term "Experimental Subject" to "Test Subject"? They are synonyms, but the latter is way more common and shorter, to boot...
  • June 2, 2013
    glisglis
    ^ Yeah, but "experimental" conveys more of a structured scientific test. A 'scientific test' on its own is something much simpler, I think.
  • June 2, 2013
    Koveras
    To me, "test subject" means "someone who's experimented upon", without any implications of the scope of said experimentation, so I don't see any difference between it and "experimental subject" except having to type more. :D
  • June 2, 2013
    glisglis
    It's like eight letters! There. Happy? ;)
  • June 2, 2013
    Koveras
    Yup. :) I'd give you my hat, but you already have it, so...
  • June 2, 2013
    Topazan
    Heck, if saving letters is important, why not change "Test Subject" to "Experimentee"? EDIT: Letter counting fail.

    Couple more examples I thought of:
    • In a first season episode of Community Annie helps professor Professor Duncan gather volunteers for a psychology experiment. Unknown to the volunteers, the experiment is to have them wait in a room indefinitely for the experiment to start, then observe the emotional breakdown that occurs when their patience runs out. Things go as planned until Abed, The Stoic of the study group, is the only one left, and his patience outlasts that of the researchers.
    • In the The Forgotten, human families are the unwitting subjects of an alien experiment to see if the bond between parent and child could be severed.

    Regarding my earlier SMBC contribution, remember Weblinks Are Not Examples, so someone should expand that somehow. Not sure how, though.

    EDIT: Also, didn't this happen in The Twilight Zone at least once?
  • June 11, 2013
    randomsurfer
    In the 100th episode of South Park it is revealed that Earth is a Reality TV Show, where aliens just threw a bunch of humans, cows, deer, etc., on one planet and watch what happens.
  • June 12, 2013
    Arivne
    Live Action TV
    • The Outer Limits
      • ("A Feasibility Study" example)
      • Episode "Nightmare". A group of United Earth troops is captured by the alien Ebons and subjected to interrogation using physical and psychological torture. At the end it turns out to be a cooperative study between the Earth and Ebon governments to determine how well human troops can withstand punishment without breaking.
  • June 12, 2013
    eowynjedi
    Newspaper Comics
    • Calvin And Hobbes features this in a nightmare of Calvin's, where he is kidnapped by aliens
    • The Far Side: Two researchers reveal to the nerdy-looking dictator of a small country that it was all a sociological experiment, that his name is really Edward Belcher, and it's time to go home.
  • May 21, 2014
    glisglis
    This has been up a while. If you guys think it's launch-ready and trope-worthy, please give it a hat.
  • May 21, 2014
    glisglis
    Edit as necessary.
  • May 21, 2014
    DAN004
    Unwitting differs from unwilling, doesn't it?

    Compare They Would Cut You Up, Unwilling Roboticisation.
  • May 21, 2014
    Alucard
    Dr. Rajit Ratha in The Amazing Spider Man had planned to use the newly developed cross-species serum at a veteran's hospital by passing it off as a vaccine, before Connors (as the Lizard) attacked him on the bridge out of Manhattan.
  • May 21, 2014
    MiinU
    Wouldn't this already be covered by Unwitting Pawn?
  • May 22, 2014
    Arivne
  • May 22, 2014
    glisglis
    Unwilling Roboticisation seems to need more consciousness of the experimentee of the experiement. Unwilling is definitely different than unwitting. An Unwitting Pawn is something much more general, but the same structure is there. Not sure if that should be mentioned. Where should that be added? (If you want to put it in, give it a shot.) The Spider-Man vaccine was less of an experiment and more part of some conspiracy to spread a disease. That would be an example of the Unwitting Pawn, I think.

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable

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