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Watson and Little Albert
John B. Watson was the Psychologist primarily responsible for behavioral enhancement. Watson believed that inner thought played no role in human behavior and that behavior could be induced through classical conditioning. He demonstrated this with the famous “Little Albert Experiment”.
In 1920, Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, conducted an experiment in which they tried to condition an infant to fear an animal. Additionally, they sought to examine whether this fear would transfer to animals or similar objects and observe how long this fear would last. They chose a healthy, 9-month-old baby who would be immortalized in Psychology as “Little Albert.” Watson and Rayner (1920) described Little Albert as “bold and unemotional”.
Initially, Albert interacted with various animals such as a rabbit, mouse, dog and a monkey and inanimate objects such as cotton, fur and masks to examine his unconditioned responses to these stimuli. Albert was judged not to be afraid of any of the animals, but was found to be frightened when a loud, disturbing 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 mouse.
To condition the fear response in Albert, the researchers had to have Albert associate the mouse with the disturbing noise. Every time Albert touched the mouse, the loud noise was made immediately afterwards and the child was disturbed. When Albert saw the mouse, he reacted by crying and trying to avoid the animal even without noise.
Generalization and Permanence
Having established that Albert was conditioned to fear an animal, they now examined how this fear generalized to other animals or objects. 5 days after the conditioned fear response, Albert was placed in a room with a mouse, a rabbit, a dog, a sealskin coat, some white cotton, a bearded Santa mask, some wooden blocks, and Watson’s inverted heads and his assistants. so that Albert could feel their hair. Albert reportedly showed a strong fear reaction to the mouse, dog, rabbit and sealskin coat, a negative reaction to the Santa Claus mask and Watson’s hair, and a mild reaction to cotton. Albert, however, liked the blocks and the hair of the assistants.
After 5 more days, Watson tried to retrain Albert to fear the mouse and also condition Albert to fear the dog and the rabbit. Watson tested this air conditioner, but in a larger room than the previous tests. In this room, Albert had only a mild reaction to the mouse, dog, and rabbit.
Having shown that the phobia can be extended to similar objects, the last step was to test the stability of the conditioning. Watson and Rayner (1920) did not see Albert for 31 days before he returned to them for final tests. Albert interacted, once again, with many different objects and showed fear when touching the mouse, dog, rabbit, sealskin coat and Santa Claus mask. However, he initiated contact with the rabbit and the coat. Thus, it seemed that his fear continued, but on a much smaller scale. After these tests, Albert’s mother removed him from the experiment, but Watson knew this would happen a month before.
The fate of Little Albert
For years after the experiment, the fate of Little Albert was unknown until, in 2009, psychologist Hall P. Beck published how he was able to discover the real name of Albert’s mother and then deduce that Albert was in actually a guy named Douglas Merritte. Unfortunately, Douglas passed away at the age of six due to hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid on the brain. Beck also revealed that Douglas had suffered from hydrocephalus since birth. He believed that Watson knew about this 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 can never be known for sure who Little Albert really was since Watson burned his collection of letters and personal papers before his death.
Criticism of the Little Albert Experiment
There was never an object measure of Albert’s fear response. It was based on the subjective observations of Watson and his assistants.
The experiment was highly unethical by today’s standards, especially considering that no attempt was made to deform the child.
Watson underestimated the severity of Douglas Merritte’s illness for the experiment, assuming he was Little Albert
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 impairment. History of Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0026720; 2012.
Powell, RA, Digdon, N., Harris, B., & Smithson, C. (2014). Correcting the record on Watson, Rayner, and Little Albert: Albert Barger as the “lost son of Psychology.” American Psychologist, 69(6), 600-611
Watson, JB & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3 (1), 1-14.
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