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Watson and Little Albert

John B. Watson was the Psychologist primarily responsible for the rise of Behaviorism. Watson believed that internal thought played no role in human behavior and that behavior could be induced through classical conditioning. He proved this with the famous “Little Albert Experiment”.

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In 1920, Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, conducted an experiment in which they tried to prepare an infant to fear an animal. In addition, they sought to examine whether this fear would transfer to similar animals or objects and observe how long this fear would last. They selected a healthy 9-month-old infant who would be immortalized in Psychology as “Little Albert.” Watson and Rayner (1920) described Little Albert as “steady and unsentimental”.

Initially, Albert interacted with various animals such as a rabbit, rat, dog and a monkey and inanimate objects such as cotton, fur and masks to examine their unconditioned responses to these stimuli. Albert was judged not to be afraid of any of the animals, but was found to be afraid when a loud, alarming noise was made by striking a steel bar with a claw hammer. Watson and Rayner (1920) continued to examine Albert’s unconditioned responses and after about two months decided that they would try to induce in Albert a phobia of a white rat.

In order to condition Albert’s fear response, the researchers had to get Albert to associate the rat with the disturbing noise. Every time Albert touched the rat, the loud noise would immediately follow, and the child would become distressed. When Albert saw the rat, he reacted by crying and trying to avoid the animal even without noise.

Generalization and permanence

Having established that Albert was conditioned to fear one animal, they now examined how this fear generalized to other animals or objects. 5 days after his fear-conditioned response, Albert was placed in a room with the rat, a rabbit, a dog, a sealskin coat, some white cotton, a bearded Santa Claus mask, some wooden blocks, and his inverted heads Watson and his assistants so that Albert can feel their hair. Albert reportedly showed a strong fear response to rat, dog, rabbit, and seal fur, a negative response to Santa’s mask and Watson’s hair, and a mild response to cotton. Albert, however, enjoyed the assistants’ blocks and hair.

After 5 more days, Watson tried to make Albert afraid of the rat and also make Albert afraid of the dog and rabbit. Watson tested this air conditioner but in a larger room than previous tests. In this room, Albert had only a mild reaction to the rat, dog, and rabbit.

Having shown that the phobia can be extended to similar objects, the final step was to test the permanence of conditioning. Watson and Rayner (1920) did not see Albert for 31 days before he returned to them for final examinations. Albert interacted, once again, with many different objects and showed fear when touching the rat, dog, rabbit, sealskin coat, and Santa mask. However, he initiated contact with the rabbit and the fur. Thus, it appeared that his fear remained but to a much lesser extent. After these tests, Albert’s mother removed him from the experiment, but Watson knew this would happen a month in advance.

The fate of little Albertus

For years after the experiment, Little Albert’s fate was unknown until, in 2009, psychologist Hal P. Beck published how he was able to uncover the real name of Albert’s mother and then conclude that Albert was actually a boy with the name Douglas Merritt. Sadly, Douglas died at the age of six due to hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid on the brain. Beck also discovered that Douglas had suffered from hydrocephalus since birth. He believed that Watson knew about it and deliberately lied about the child’s health for his experiment.

However, in 2014, researchers also presented evidence that Little Albert was actually William Albert Barger. Barger was the son of a wet nurse who worked at the hospital where the experiment was conducted. Unfortunately, it may never be known for certain who Little Albert really was since Watson burned his collection of letters and personal papers before his death.

Reviews of Little Albert’s Experiment

  • There was never an objective measure of Albert’s fear response. It was based on the subjective observations of Watson and his assistants.

  • The experiment was incredibly unethical by today’s standards, especially considering that no attempt was made to destroy the child.

  • Watson underestimated the severity of Douglas Merritte’s illness for the experiment, assuming it was Little Albert

bibliographical references

Beck, HP, Levinson, S., & Irons, G. (2009). Finding Little Albert: A Journey into John B. Watson’s Baby Laboratory. American Psychologist, 2009; 64(7): 605-614.

Fridlund, AJ, Beck, HP, Goldie, WD, & Irons, G. Little Albert: A child with neurological problems. History of Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0026720; 2012.

Powell, RA, Digdon, N., Harris, B., & Smithson, C. (2014). Correction of record for Watson, Rayner and Little Albert: Albert Barger as “Psychology’s lost boy”. American Psychologist, 69(6), 600-611

Watson, JB & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditions emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1-14.

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