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.
- 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.
- Robin: When Strader Pharmaceuticals couldn't get approval to test their new Super Serum they started having it sold as a street drug and observing those who took it from afar instead. When it turned out to be a Psycho Serum that killed the users they decided to cut their loses by hiring unscrupulous mercenaries to kill those who hadn't died yet and the reporter who'd started to catch on and dispose of the bodies to prevent anything from being linked back to them.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Jurassic Park provides some backstory for InGen's chief rival company, BioSyn, in which they used a village of Chilean farmers as guinea pigs for an experimental rabies vaccine, using a form of the virus that had been turned into an inhaled pathogen. They got away with it because it happened on foreign soil, so the American government couldn't prosecute them, and the Chilean government had other problems at the time to keep them from raising a fuss.
- The Outer Limits (1963):
- 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 "Where Silence Has Lease". The Enterprise is investigating a "hole" in space when it's suddenly swallowed by said hole. Subsequent attempts to navigate away from it end up getting them nowhere, before they're beset by phantom ships with Alien Geometries. After exits start randomly popping up and disappearing, they realize that some sort of intelligence is testing their reactions to stimuli, which turns out to be an amoral Cosmic Entity calling itself "Nagilum", who intends to kill off a large part of the crew to investigate death.
- Episode "Allegiance". Captain Picard 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 Hive Mind aliens inclined to scientific curiosity—and one of them is in on it.
- 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.
- Kamen Rider Build: Early in the show it's revealed that the protagonist Kiryu Sento was experimented on by the secret organization Faust (resulting in his Identity Amnesia), which isn't this trope. What is is the part where they allowed him to escape while stealing the show's Transformation Trinkets, which they created as military prototypes; even as he fights Monsters of the Week, Faust is gathering data in order to improve and refine the tech so they can create a literal army of Kamen Riders.
- An unusual variant happens in The Big Bang Theory when Sheldon and Amy (who are scientists) perform a series of intelligence tests on Leonard (who is also a scientist) and Penny (who isn't). When the test subjects find out what's been happening, they are extremely angry with their so-called best friends. However, the issue is then sidelined by the much bigger issue of Howard's mother's sudden death.
- 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 sends an angel who says(paraphrased), "Whoa, dude, that's okay. Just checking." Since God already promised to bless Issac and his descendants, the New Testament suggests Abraham already knew it was just a test and Issac would be fine.
- 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.
- Miss Evers' Boys. A stageplay by David Feldschuh about the infamous Tuskegee experiment (1932�1972), 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.
- 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. Most of the Vaults' residents predictably came to unfortunate ends. Then again, (to quote Penny Arcade) "the Vaults were never meant to save anyone."
- NEOKOSMOS: Tye, Z, and Iris are aware that they're test subjects, having been raised on a space station and all, but none of them are sure what the experiment actually is, and their alien caretakers aren't too keen on explaining. They suspect that it has something to do with being the last surviving humans in the galaxy, but the truth is more complicated. For starters, they're not the only humans. The experiment was focused on human interactions through isolation, with at least three test groups in different segments of the station: the Level 1 kids are raised together in a community, the Level 2 kids (Tye, Z, Iris, and likely others before them) communicate with each other digitally, but never meet in person, while the Level 3 kids (most of whom exhibited Psychic Powers) are raised in complete isolation.
- Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has also exploited this structure. link link link link link
- 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 also 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.
- A related test was Project 4.1, which involved studying the effects of fallout from the Castle Bravo nuclear test on the residents of the Marshall islands.
- The US government (yes, they were fans of this for a while) also once tested Sarin (a toxic nerve gas) on a British soldier under the auspices that it was cold medicine. He died almost immediately. There were also plans to test VX based chemical weapons on Australian troops during what was allegedly a training exercise. They couldn't convince Australia to let them do it though.
- Another one by the US government: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a notorious real-life example of Withholding the Cure in order to study the effects of the disease on a black population. The subjects of the experiment were told they would receive free medical care but instead received useless treatments instead of those that had been shown to work, with the rationale that it was For Science!.
- Some of the nastiest and most infamous experiments in history were done by Nazi Germany on concentration camp prisoners, including the medical experiments done by the notoriously sadistic Dr.Josef Mengele. Examples include studying the effects of death by exposure, and many bizarre experiments on twins (such as killing one with boiling water and the other with freezing water) that seem so cruel and pointless they appear to be more For the Evulz than anything.
- Similar experiments were carried out by fellow Axis member Imperial Japan, especially the infamous Unit 731, that included vivisection on humans.
- The Soviet Union had a notorious program that tested the efficacy of various poisons and toxins on prisoners as well.
- Allegedly, North Korea still performs unethical experiments in the Nazi and Soviet vein on prisoners in its many work camps.
- 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 (664-610 BC). He concluded that the natural language sounded like Phrygian, a language spoken in what would be today's Turkey.