Imagine moving into your dorm for the first time, and as you’re trying to get everything settled, several people you’ve never met greet you and call you by an unfamiliar name. Then suddenly somebody screams out that you have a twin. Well, as strange as that is, this exact scenario happened to Bobby Shafran in 1980. Bobby was moving into his dorm and was unfamiliar with the people at Sullivan Community College, in New York, but many of them greeted him and welcomed him back. However, things got strange when they began to call him “Eddy.” After much confusion, Michael, Eddy’s best friend, stepped in and began to ask him if he was adopted, and convinced him to drive to Eddy’s house. Upon arrival, the two long-lost brothers immediately conversed and hugged as if they had known each other their whole lives. Soon the story hit the New York Times, and everybody was in shock with the impossible situation.1 The story was incredibly hard to believe at the time, and it only got more confusing when David Kellman looked down at the newspaper and realized that he was staring down at two of himself. Immediately he called the other families and soon the three boys were reunited. The three families were so caught up with what seemed like a miracle that it was long until they questioned how these three boys got separated at birth back in 1961 by the Louise Wise Adoption Agency.2

Documentary of the Three Identical Strangers | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Bobby, David, and Eddy at first weren’t occupied in finding out why the agency would separate them. On the other hand, their parents wanted to find out why, so all three families arranged a meeting with those working for the Louise Wise Adoption Agency. The meeting concluded nothing, as the agency only excused the incident by saying that they didn’t believe that a family would take in all three twins. With this simplistic answer, the three brothers continued to flourish in their new fame and seized every opportunity to be together. The boys quickly began to learn how similar their interests were and with the explosion of this news, many shows called them in for live interviews. Everybody was curious about them. They were asked if they had similar taste in food, cars, women, and mannerisms, to which they all answered yes. Bobby, David, and Eddy shared personality traits that amazed all the people watching them on television. In several interviews they revealed how all three had participated in wrestling in junior high and even smoked the same brand of cigarettes.3

When looking at triplets, the genetic makeup is distinctly different from regular siblings and fraternal twins. While fraternal twins only share fifty percent of their DNA code, triplets share one-hundred percent of their DNA code with each other. Identical twins are formed from the exact sperm and egg sharing the same DNA code that predisposes them to a lot of their psychical traits.4

The genetic difference between identical twins and fraternal twins | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In different studies, twins have been proven to be quite similar in both physical and personality traits. Psychologists had believed that this was due to twins being exposed to the same environment, allowing them to develop quite similarly. However, both nature and nurture contribute factors that predispose people to their personality. While nature deals with genetics, nurture focuses on environmental factors as impacts to one’s self. In this specific case, the triplets realized that heredity was influencing their personality. This can answer why Bobby, Eddy, and David looked exactly alike physically, but also shared many of the same interests, thoughts, mannerisms, and ideas. The idea of nurture was of little influence in this case, because the three brothers were identical in personality regardless of the different environments they were placed in at birth.5

Eddy, Bobby, and David had become so involved in each other’s lives, that they decided to open a restaurant called “Triplets” in New York. The brothers even decided to get an apartment together to make up for lost time. They had been getting along so well, and this only created a stronger bond between the three brothers. What used to be a dream quickly turned into a nightmare for the three men as they started to work together. As time passed, the three brother’s work ethics conflicted and they often had similar ideas for the restaurant. They recognized that not growing up together caused them to be unable to adjust to one another. After a lot of conflict, Bobby Shafran decided to leave the business, which caused a divide between the families. The three brothers eventually got married and Eddy relocated to stay near Bobby and David several times. However, the families we’re not as close, with only Eddy and David running the restaurant. Eddy began to act strange and revealed erratic behaviors, and he was admitted to a psychiatric ward. However, Eddy’s bipolar disorder only worsen, and he committed suicide in 1995. This event reveal that all three had once been admitted for psychiatric help, and it made them question more about the circumstances that had surrounded their birth.6

Eddy’s tragic death only fueled Bobby and David more to reach out to the Louise Wise Adoption Agency to figure out why they had been split up. The head psychiatrist Dr. Peter worked for the Louise Wise Adoption Agency and purposefully orchestrated the separation of not only these three brothers, but other set of twins as well. Dr. Peter oversaw a study on Nature vs Nurture in twins, and gathered several assistants to help conduct it.7 Although many records weren’t released, Bobby had gotten in contact with the assistants in the experiment after many attempts to receive the documents that were sealed off in Yale University. Lawrence Perlman, Dr. Peter’s assistant, revealed that the agency had tried to see the impact of the differences in parenting and in social class on twin personalities. Dr. Peter placed Bobby with a wealthy family, Eddy with a middle class family, and David with a blue-collar family. The research assistants had gone to their homes as they grew up to test what heritable traits they shared in their controlled environments. Dr. Peter’s assistants would also test the boys’ intelligence, emotions, and picture descriptions, and as they grew older, the examinations would become more complex. They had also chosen them carefully to all live within a hundred-mile radius from each other in order to follow up with the children for several years. The study made Bobby and David feel like guinea pigs, and it crossed a lot of personal boundaries that should have been illegal at the time. The assistants disagreed, because at the time the boundaries for scientific research were not greatly restricted.8

Explanation of the debriefing process | Courtesy of slide share.

Although psychology had been a respectable discipline since the nineteenth century, Social Psychology was coming into its own in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many psychologists had conducted experiments regarding human nature and the factors that influence personality. At that time, researchers still didn’t have regulations for their experiments. Over time, the American Psychological Association (APA) has established limits and preventions to avoid unethical experiments after continuous disregard for participant awareness.9 The APA’s ethical guidelines mentions debriefing, which is the first step a researcher must take before he or she can construct experimental groups. Debriefing consists of researchers explaining the nature of their experiment to the participants and then allowing them to choose whether they wish to remain a part of the experiment. After the debriefing process, it is also required that researchers explain the confidentiality of the experiment and the role the participants will take. Once the research is conducted, participants get called in to discuss the results or any deceiving, if any, that took place during the experiment.10

The era when the three brothers were born was a time when scientific research in social psychology was still in its unmonitored and undisciplined stage. The assistants in the research conducted by Dr. Peter didn’t feel regret for what they had participated in, even though they later admitted that it was unethical. There was a lot to uncover about the impact of genetics on personality that was tested without much ethical control during the 1950s and 1960s. Overall, the study had concluded that genetics played a huge role on the development of the three brothers, and that mental illness can also be inherited and displayed, regardless of parental involvement or social class. This was one of many experiments that paved the way for the APA’s implementations of ethic standards for scientific experiments.11 But Bobby, David, and Eddy felt used and didn’t accept the excuse for their treatment. Their whole lives were treated as a huge experiment, and it was only a mere coincidence that the three brothers had crossed paths in 1980. After Eddy’s passing, Bobby and David were able to find closure by receiving all the documents from the agency over the experiment. Bobby and David continued their life’s alongside their families after all the tragic news, but later agreed to make a documentary to bring awareness to the issue.

  1. Emma Shackle, “Three Identical Strangers,” Transpersonal psychology review, (2019): 58-59.
  2. Leon Hoffman, “Three Identical Strangers and The Twinning Reaction,” The Arts and Medicine, (2019): 10-12.
  3. Emma Shackle, “Three Identical Strangers,” Transpersonal psychology review, (2019): 58-59.
  4. Bryanna Moore, “The Strange Tale of Three identical Strangers: Cinematic Lessons in Bioethics,” The Hastings Center Report, (2019): 21.
  5. Victoria Stern, “Roundup: Nature vs Nurture,” Scientific American Mind, (2014): 73.
  6. Charlie Brouillard, “Predictive Links Between Genetic Vulnerability to Depression and Trajectories of Warmth and Conflict in the Mother-Adolescent and Father-Adolescent Relationships,” Developmental Psychology, (2019): 1743-1746.
  7. Emma Shackle, “Three Identical Strangers,” Transpersonal psychology review, (2019): 58-59.
  8. Leon Hoffman, “Three Identical Strangers and The Twinning Reaction,” The Arts and Medicine, (2019): 10-12.
  9. Franklin Miller, “Forgoing Debriefing in Deceptive Research: is it ever ethical?” Ethics and Behavior, (2013): 105.
  10. Malgorzata Oczak, “Debriefing in Deceptive Research: A Proposed New Procedure,” The Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics: An International Journal, (2007): 49-59.
  11. Malgorzata Oczak, “Debriefing in Deceptive Research: A Proposed New Procedure,” The Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics: An International Journal, (2007): 49-59.

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62 Responses

  1. This article left me surprised. I haven’t watched the movie but after reading this article I think I might just watch it. Although I don’t have a twin one of my older brothers and I have very similar interests and people say we look alike which left me thinking a lot of stuff. It’s crazy how they did an experiment on all three boys without them being aware of it, and how the doctors got away with it all.

  2. I remember watching the movie about them for a psychology class I took in high school. It is very bizarre to know how the concept of “nature vs nuture” shows how not everything environmental influences us. The way we are in some ways in genetically embedded. It is upsetting to know they were separated to be studied upon for an experiment, it really took a toll for the triplets as kids and infants. But thankfully they were able to find each other in the future.

  3. This article left me very surprised. I had no previous knowledge on the difference between siblings, twins and triplets DNA. I think this is was a very unethical study, not to mention it resulted in the death of one of the triplets. They were used for a study, an experiment. These boys lived a life not knowing that they were triplets. Makes me question what if they would have never accidently met? or were they set up to meet? That social experiment was totally a violation of personal boundaries, and it is relieving to hear that there have been limits placed to conduct unethical experiments like the one the article mentioned.

  4. I could not imagine being separated from my brother at birth. I also can not imagine the hardships these three felt when they realized they were identical twins and had no idea one another existed until later in their lives. It is crazy to think about how one person can make such an influential decision in deciding who knows who. It is also crazy to think that the Dr made the decision to ruin three people’s lives. Thank you for the information!!

    Good Job!!

  5. This specific story of triplets I have heard before, at least the parts of the story in the introductory paragraphs, but what interested me is what the title entailed. As it would turn out I had no idea as to the full story surrounding this story of triplets, and this is one of those stories where it feels that not knowing might have been better. Nevertheless, the knowledge provided on the science of twins and triplets in addition to the rest of the story regarding Eddy, Bobby, and David was very informational and well done.

  6. Psychology is definitely a new subject to me and understanding how the separation and even the reunion of these triplets later in life affected them is really sad. The purposeful separation of the triplets based on the desire to conduct an experiment. Whenever I hear about separated family-I often think of Sister Sister and as you go through the sitcom you really see how both twins had to learn to grow up with each other, appreciate each other and even for out their major differences. All of which are normal circumstances, but they are a lot less normal and a lot harder when the separation of the triplets was planned.

  7. As a psychology major, this story has always been a focus when speaking of the concept “nature vs. nurture”. Although the separation of the triplets was quite heartbreaking, it’s difficult to deny the amount of information it provided to the psychology field. It isn’t purely our genetics, and it isn’t purely our environment, that makes us who we are. It’s a combination of both. There is a documentary showing how the researchers managed to study the triplets, and keep them apart, for so long without getting caught. The loss of connection the brother experienced could never be made up for, but the connection they made at an older age was just as special.

  8. I remember watching a video on these triplets a couple years back and it was just amazing on how they never knew of each other until they met accidentally…This article really gave amazing detail on their journey of how they found each other. It’s disappointing to know that they were basically used for an experiment and the doctor didn’t really show any emotion to his actions but still at the end of the day the brothers are living a happy life and they have the company of each other.

  9. Wow! what an astonishing story. I was not educated on the science of twins vs triplets. This article does good job explaining it. The emotions and feelings those triplets were feeling when they met each other and found out they were being study are unimaginable. This is such an unethical study, how do doctors and Yale University get away with this. Human curiosity leads to many positives with just as many or even more negatives.

  10. This article was very well written! I found it interesting to learn about the difference in the DNA code between regular siblings and twins. It is very alarming that the research assistants didn’t feel regret for conducting this highly unethical study. The fact that they purposefully separated the triplets and ultimately contributed to the suicide of one of the triplets makes me wonder what other unethical studies were going on at that time.

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