Demystifying Psychology

Monday, February 27, 2012

The (In)Famous Case of 'Little Albert', 1920

Welcome to Psychology for Everyone.
For this first post, I have chosen one of the most influential and controversial experiments in the history of psychology. Today's discussion will be on Watson and Rayner's "Conditioned Emotional Reactions", better known as 'the case of little Albert'.

If you have had any exposure to psychology, chances are you have heard of Watson's rather infamous experiments with "little Albert".  However, it is equally likely you have never actually read Watson's article...and his work is frequently misquoted or misrepresented. So both for those who are not familiar with this experiment and for those who have limited familiarity with it, let's take a closer look at what really happened in this experiment which was so important in bringing behaviorism to the forefront of psychological research.

About the Experiment
First, I would like to encourage you to seize the opportunity and read the original journal article, which is available for free online (this is unfortunately not the case with many of the more recent studies we will be covering).

The article states Watson and Rayner selected Albert B for his experiments due to the baby's normal development and "stolid" and "unemotional" personality. Indeed, when presented with a barrage of fuzzy white stimuli (from a bunny to a bearded mask), Albert displayed little reaction beyond curiosity.

The primary goal of this experiment was to demonstrate that it was possible to create a fear reaction to previously neutral stimuli through experience, so Watson and Rayner had to ensure that their fear-producing stimuli would work on little Albert. At first they tried "removing support"(which consisted of jerking the blanket Albert was lying on out from underneath him!) to no avail: the tough little toddler wasn't upset in the least.Then they tested a loud noise (banging a steel bar with a hammer) as the fear stimulus. Sure enough, Albert was visibly upset and started to cry. Now Watson and Rayer were ready to begin their conditioning experiment with little Albert.

The full details of the procedure are recorded in the article, so I will not delve into them in too much detail at the risk of getting too technical. Watson and Rayner presented little Albert with a white rat, and as soon as Albert reached out to touch the animal, the steel bar was struck with the hammer. According to the journal article, changes in Albert's behavior could be seen after just one session, even having waited a week before testing him again. After testing the effects of the first conditioning session, a second conditioning session was carried out on this 7th day. 5 days later (and 12 days after the start of the experiment), Albert was producing a pretty convincing fear response to the rat, which was only strengthened by a third conditioning session on that day.

A secondary goal Watson and Rayner listed in the article was to determine if a conditioned emotional response would generalize (spread to other similar but unconditioned objects/stimuli). As a part of that third session on day 12, they tested Albert's responses to a variety of other furry animals and objects. It was found that after just these 3 sessions, Albert had indeed generalized this conditioned fear of a white rat onto a white rabbit, a fur coat, a white-bearded Santa Claus mask, and a dog (though to a lesser extent). Wool did not seem to have as much of an effect as the animals and objects that could be classified as 'furry', and a response to hair is mentioned in passing but difficult to understand clearly.
These negative reactions only strengthened with further testing.

Watson and Rayner also listed two other goals: to determine the effect of elapsed time on the conditioned response, and to determine what methods could be used to extinguish the conditioned response if it had not died out with time. Unfortunately, their performance on these points proved to be a glaring weakness in their experiment (and a part of what makes it such a controversial one). Watson and Rayner conducted one final test on little Albert one month after their initial experiment.  As you probably guessed, Albert had maintained a fear response to all of the animals and objects (rat, rabbit, dog, bearded Santa mask, fur coat). Although some of his reactions had lessened slightly, Albert was still quite fearful of virtually all of the furry stimuli.
However, Watson and Rayner did not extinguish the conditioned fear responses. In their article, this is attributed to the fact that Albert was removed from the hospital the day the final data was taken, and all record of the child seems to have been lost.

Examining the Experiment
While Watson and Rayner's experiment on little Albert provided groundbreaking insight into the role of experience in shaping our personality, it certainly has its design flaws. First, the experiment is a case study, meaning it uses qualitative data on only one participant to draw its conclusions. This leaves a lot of room for error, misinterpretation, or misrepresentation of the general population of babies who are Albert's age. There is also the slight possibility that Albert's extremely stoic personality was due to some kind of mental or developmental deficit. Either way, the fact that Watson "selected" Albert as an ideal participant for the study and ran all of the trials himself as the experimentor further biases the outcome.

The experiment was also controversial for a number of reasons, and it could even be argued that it was one of the experiments which contributed to today's ethical guidelines and enforcement protocol such as Internal Review Boards. Obviously, little Albert was not old enough to consent to participating in an experiment, and it is unclear as to whether or not his mother fully understood the procedure and could have consented for him. The very nature of the experiment was also an ethical issue, as it certainly caused little Albert a great deal of discomfort, and quite possibly long-term psychological damage (what do you think life is like for a child who is fearful of Santa Claus masks..?). Along these same lines, Watson and Rayner did not follow through on their promise to extinguish the potentially damaging fears they conditioned in little Albert, and this would be considered highly unethical by today's standards. Finally, although not an issue with this study in particular, Watson eventually married Rayner (a graduate student working under him at the time), and this is another practice that would be considered unethical by today's APA standards. Who says psychology doesn't have scandals?!

"Finding Little Albert"
In 2009, Beck and colleagues endeavored to find out what happened to Watson's "little Albert". This article is also available to read online, but I will attempt to very briefly summarize Beck's findings for those who are curious.

This was not easy research. Most of the leads came from interviews, family stories, and old photographs. Watson certainly did not make Beck's search any easier, as he apparently burned all of his papers before his death. Despite all of the roadblocks encountered in his research, Beck presents a convincing argument that a boy named Douglas was the real "little Albert".  He suggests that there might have been several reasons why "Albert B's" true identity would have been concealed, ranging from his lowly status as the son of a wet nurse to Watson's own sense of humor.

Unfortunately, little Douglas' story is a sad one. In 1922 he contracted hydrocephalus, and he died in 1925, just after his sixth birthday.

If you are interested in learning more about Beck's research and what might have happened to the baby in Watson and Rayner's experiments after he left the hospital, I would encourage you to take a look at the article. It reads like a story.

Watson, J.B. and Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1, pp. 1–14.
Beck, H. P., Levinson, S., & Irons, G. (2009). Finding Little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson's infant laboratory. American Psychologist, 64, 7. pp. 605–614.
Photo credit: video still from Watson & Rayner's experiments; video credit can be viewed in the video intro


  1. article provides examples showing that the main results and causes of the Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment relate to social roles of the male gender