The Little Albert Study
The Little Albert Experiment is one of the classic experiments of psychology undertaken by behaviorist John B. Watson and his student Rosalie Rayner.
In John Watson’s experiment with little Albert, he demonstrated that emotional responses could be classically conditioned in humans.
In other words, classical conditioning could be used to create phobias.
A phobia can be defined as an unreasonable fear that is way too much stronger than the danger involved.
Thus, the case of little Albert is used by behaviorists to explain that one could condition an emotional response in humans.
He further claimed these conditioned emotional responses could be transferred to other stimuli. (other animals and objects in this case like cotton wool, rabbit, a seal fur coat, etc ).
The Little Albert study is the very first laboratory demonstration of the conditioned emotional responses in people.
Watson expanded on the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning study.
Pavlov studied conditioned responses to stimuli in the case of animals. Whereas John B. Watson studied the conditioned emotional responses to stimuli in the case of humans.
Little Albert Experiment Summary
The little Albert experiment summary captures how the nine-month-old little Albert was classically conditioned to fear white rats. Further, the summary of the little Albert experiment gives you an overview of the little Albert experiment conclusion drawn by both Watson and Rayner.
1. Exposure To Fear
Both Watson and Rayner exposed the Little Albert, the nine-month-old, to a white rat to which he showed no fear.
But, the child began to cry when exposed to the sound of a hammer striking on a suspended steel bar. So the child showed no fear when exposed to the white rat in the baseline test. However, he clearly did not like the noise of the striking hammer.
2. Exposure To White Rate
A few months later, Watson exposed the child to the white rat again, this time with the hammer striking the metal bar. The loud noise of the striking hammer made Little Albert cry.
Now, Watson exposed the baby to the white rat accompanied by the noise of the striking hammer continuously, a couple of times. In this way, he instilled the fear of white rats in Albert through classical conditioning. Accordingly, little Albert feared the white rat the moment he saw it.
3. Child Exposed To Furry Objects
Not only that, Little Albert feared everything that was similar to the white rat. Watson observed that Albert’s fear for the white rat transferred to other stimuli like Santa Claus mask, dog, cotton wool, etc.
Thus, the conclusion of the little Albert experiment was that humans could be conditioned for certain emotional responses. Further, these emotional responses could be transferred to other stimuli. Also, such responses persisted over a period of time.
The Little Albert Experiment
John B. Watson and his collaborator Rosalie Rayner conducted the Little Albert Experiment in 1920 at John Hopkins University.
The results of the baby Albert experiment first got published in the 1920 edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Further, they called the Little Albert Study “Conditioned Emotional Reactions by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner.”
Based on his detailed study on infants, John. B Watson claimed that there are only a few original emotional reaction patterns in infants.
These include mainly love, rage, and fear. However, as infants grow into adults, one can witness a range of complex emotional responses establishing in them.
So, how do these complex emotional responses develop in adults?
These are conditioned reflex factors as per Watson. And these result in a range of emotional responses, their complex forms, and stimuli evoking them from infancy to adulthood.
The environment in which the child is brought up acts as a laboratory. This helps in establishing the conditioned emotional responses in him/her.
Thus, the baby Albert experiment demonstrates how emotional responses in humans can be classically conditioned.
What is the Little Albert Experiment?
Albert B. was the nine-month-old infant on whom Watson and Rayner conducted the Little Albert Experiment.
He grew in a hospital environment since birth and was healthy and stable.
Albert’s mother was a wet nurse in the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children.
What Four Questions are Tested in the Little Albert Experiment?
Both Watson and Rayner wanted to answer the following four questions through the Little Albert Experiment:
Watson and Rayner could not answer the last question. That is, they could not decondition Albert B. for the fear of animals for which he was conditioned.
This is because both Albert and his mother left the hospital. So they could not decondition the child for the fear of white rats.
I. Exposure to White Rat Producing No Fear Response
At approximately nine months of age, Watson and Rayner first exposed the Little Albert successively to white furry things. These included a white rat, dog, monkey, rabbit, masks with and without hair, burning newspapers, cotton wool, etc.
In this baseline test, Little Albert showed no fear in any of the situations.
Then, both Watson and Rayner tested the child for a loud sound. They wanted to determine if loud sound could evoke a fear response in Little Albert.
Thus, one of the two experimenters went behind the child and struck a hammer on a suspended metal bar.
Little Albert showed that he did not like the noise so produced.
On striking the hammer for the second time, the same thing occurred, this time with Albert’s lips trembling.
Finally, on striking the hammer for the third time, Little Albert started crying.
Thus, the noise of the hammer striking the metal bar is called fear response in Little Albert.
Unconditioned Stimulus and Unconditioned Response
So, the noise of a hammer striking the bar is an Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS). This is because the noise is not dependent on anything to evoke the fear response in the infant. It is alone sufficient to produce such a response.
Further, the fear response evoked by sound alone is the Unconditioned Response (UCR).
II. Conditioning the Infant to Fear the White Rat
When Albert turned 11 months 3 days old, both Watson and Rayner exposed the infant to the white rat.
One of the experimenters struck the metal bar behind Little Albert as soon as he touched the white rat, Albert, in response, jumped fiercely but did not cry.
Likewise, one of them struck the metal bar again the moment Albert reached for the white rat the second time. This time, the infant jumped fiercely and began to cry. Further, they did not undertake any test for a week to avoid causing any serious trouble to the infant.
After a week, they test little Albert multiple times (at 11 months 10 days of age).
Thus, Watson either exposed Albert to the white rat alone or both the rat and sound. Thus, in this way, Little Albert developed a fear of white rats.
Accordingly, the Conditioned Stimulus (CS), touching of the white rat in this case, is paired with the Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS), the noise of the metal bar being struck by the hammer, to produce the Conditioned Response (CR) of fearing the white rat.
III. Tested for Transfer of Conditioned Emotional Response to Other Animals and Objects
Once Albert developed the fear of white rats, Watson tested if such a conditioned emotional response transfers to other animals and objects.
To test this, Watson exposed Albert to various animals and objects.
These included a rabbit, a dog, a seal fur coat, cotton wool, and a Santa Claus mask. He observed that the infant feared touching these animals and objects.
Thus, Watson claimed the conditioned emotional response like fear response transfers to other stimuli like animals and objects related to the Conditioned Stimulus (CS).
IV. The Effect of Time Upon Conditioned Emotional Responses
Watson and Rayner tested Little Albert again a month later when he turned 1 year 21 days old.
They exposed him to a rabbit, a dog, a seal fur coat, cotton wool, and a Santa Claus mask without the noise.
The intent was to see the impact of time upon the conditioned emotional responses.
Thus, they observed that the emotional responses, both conditioned directly and the ones conditioned by transfer, lasted for more than a month.
However, they noticed a loss in the intensity of such conditioned emotional responses.
According to Watson and Rayner, such conditioning had the potential to last and alter an individual’s personality for life.
V. Removal of the Conditioned Responses
Both Watson and Rayner could not research the removal of the conditioned emotional responses.
This is because both Little Albert and his mother left the hospital. Still, Watson and Rayner suggested certain ways in which such conditioned emotional responses could die out.
Continuous Exposure to Fear Evoking Stimuli Without Pairing it With The Unconditioned Stimulus
This is similar to “Extinction” in conditioning. Little Albert can be presented with the Unconditioned Stimulus (that is the noise of the striking hammer) successively without pairing it with the Conditioned Stimulus ( the touching of the white rat in this case). This can lead to a reduction in the Conditioned Response.
Reconditioning By Exposing Albert to Feared Objects Paired With Stimulation of Erogenous Zones or Candy
Another way in which a conditioned response can die out is “Reconditioning”. They can provoke Albert’s erogenous zones while he is exposed to the feared objects. The erogenous zones include lips, nipples, etc. Or he can be presented with the feared objects by simultaneously feeding him candy or food.
Modeling would include letting little Albert develop a new behavior by imitating people who were not fearful of animals. Or, one could simply control his responses in respect of the feared objects. For instance, guiding his hand to touch the feared animal.
Little Albert Experiment Conclusion
Following were the points made in the Little Albert Experiment conclusion:
- Emotional responses (fear responses in this case) can be conditioned in human beings
- Such conditioned emotional responses could be transferred to other stimuli like related objects and animals
- Such conditioned emotional responses lasted over a period of time.
As mentioned above, Watson and Rayner could not research in respect of the removal of the conditioned emotional responses.
This is because both Albert and his mother left the hospital by the time such a study could be undertaken.
Still, both Watson and Rayner made suggestions with regards to the ways in which the fear of animals so developed could be removed in Albert.
These include methods like Extinction, Reconditioning, and Modeling.
In addition to this, Watson also contended the Freudian belief that love is the only primary emotion from which all the other emotions arise.
Instead, Watson said that in addition to Love, fear and rage are also primary emotions. Further, both fear and rage do not arise from love.
Watson also said that phobias should not only be tracked down to love alone. That is, the emotional disorders should be traced to conditioned and transferred responses to all three emotions – love, rage, and fear.
Why Was the Little Albert Experiment Unethical?
The conclusion of little Albert experiment clearly demonstrates how humans can be classically conditioned. Accordingly, the case of Little Albert is used by behaviorists to explain classical conditioning in humans even today.
However, there were certain ethical issues in little Albert experiment. No code of Ethics existed for psychologists at the time Watson and Rayner undertook the baby Albert experiment.
Accordingly, certain aspects that formed part of the Little Albert Experiment might not be unethical at the time the experiment was undertaken.
However, these are treated as ethical violations if you go by today’s code of ethics.
Both the American Psychological Association (APA) and the British Psychological Society (BPS) have now laid down the code of ethics.
All practicing psychologists are expected to abide by this code of conduct in all situations.
Some of these include avoiding harm to subjects, informed consent of the subject, or an authorized person on his behalf, competency of the psychologists, etc.
The intent of such a code of ethics is to:
- promote ethical behavior on the part of psychologists,
- ensure quality research,
- warrant the proficiency of the psychologists, and
- ensure the safety of humans and animals as subjects for various experiments.
Let’s understand what are the ethical issues with the Little Albert Experiment.
Little Albert Experiment Ethical Issues
1. Avoiding Harm to Subjects
Psychologists must take all possible measures to ensure that no harm is done to the research participants.
They must not engage in any such activity that results in inflicting physical or mental suffering to the subject intentionally.
Unfortunately, one of the Little Albert experiment ethical issues was that Little Albert was harmed during the experiment. This is because he was classically conditioned to fear white rats, and such fear did not exist earlier in baby Albert.
This could also have resulted in Albert suffering for his entire life.
2. Principle of Informed Consent
The Principle of Informed Consent states that psychologists need to obtain the consent of the individual who is taken as a subject of psychological research.
If such consent cannot be obtained from the subject, informed consent of the person authorized on his/her behalf needs to be obtained.
One of the other Little Albert ethical issues was that no such consent was taken from Albert’s mother.
3. Participant’s Right to Withdraw
Today, the code of ethics followed by psychologists provides the participants with the right to withdraw from the experiment at any time.
Participants are free to pull back from the experiment without bearing any further consequences.
The list of Little Albert’s ethical issues also includes little Albert and his mother having no right to withdraw from the experiment.
4. Competency of the Researcher
Psychologists, today, must maintain the highest standards of competence in their professional work.
They offer services that are based on their knowledge, skill, and experience. Thus, they cannot provide any services that are outside the scope of their skills experience, knowledge, and training.
Here’s where the last of the list of ethical issues with the Little Albert experiment comes in. The method adopted by Waston to undertake the Little Albert Experiment was not of the highest standard.
For instance, the experiment was not conducted in a controlled environment. Likewise, only one subject was used to draw conclusions.
What Happened to Little Albert?
Much has been said about Little Albert’s death. Researchers have been keen on knowing what happened to Little Albert. And this is since the time the infant and his mother left the hospital in 1920.
Little Albert’s death and identity remained a mystery for more than 90 years. However, researchers are of the view that they have identified Albert B.
Watson did not disclose the identity of the baby he used as a subject in the Little Albert Experiment.
As mentioned earlier, John B. Watson also did not decondition Little Albert. This is because the infant left the hospital with his mother.
Since then, Little Albert’s fate and identity have been a mystery for psychology scholars.
The Appalachian State University psychologist Hall P. Beck with a team of students and colleagues undertook research for seven years.
They went through the historical documents. Further, they sought the help of facial analysis experts and met with the relatives of the boy they identified as Albert B.
Douglas Merritte was the boy they indicated as Albert B. Further, Douglas Merritte was the son of Arvilla Merritte, a wetnurse.
Arvilla lived and worked at the John Hopkins campus hospital at the time of the experiment. She received $1 for Douglas Merritte’s participation in the experiment.
Similarities Between Douglas Merritte and Albert B
They revealed that the characteristics of both Douglas Merritte and Arvilla matched with Albert and his mother.
Much like Albert’s mother, Arvilla worked at the campus hospital called the Harriet Lane Home.
Similarly, much like Albert B, Douglas Merritte was a white male who left the hospital in the 1920s and was born at the same time as Albert.
In addition to this, a facial analysis of Douglas with Little Albert’s picture revealed similarities.
The team of researchers also found that Douglas Merritte died at the age of six of acquired hydrocephalus.
However, they could not say anything if the fear of furry objects lasted in Douglas after he left the hospital in 1920.
Little Albert Experiment Hypothesis
Both John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner expanded on Ivan Pavlov’s study of classical conditioning.
In the baby Albert experiment, they hypothesized that one can instill fear of animals and objects in humans. These are objects or animals that they are typically not fearful of.
Both Watson and Rayner asserted that children had innate fear. This fear would reflect in their actions the moment they heard a loud noise.
Further, the baby Albert experiment proved that through classical conditioning, children can develop fear for animals (which are neutral stimuli) that they did not fear earlier.
Little Albert Experiment Strengths and Weaknesses
After discussing the ethical issues of the Little Albert experiment, let’s have a look at little Albert’s strengths and weaknesses. The strengths and weaknesses of the Little Albert Experiment are as follows:
1. Classical Conditioning Could Occur in Humans
Ivan Pavlov’s Dog study demonstrated that classical conditioning could take place in animals.
However, Watson believed that the findings of this study can apply to humans.
Both Watson and Wayner, through the little Albert study, proved that humans can be classically conditioned for fear of neutral stimuli that they earlier were not afraid of.
2. Starting Point to Understand Phobias
John B Watson’s Little Albert study helped in understanding how phobias are acquired in humans.
Further, it also helped in understanding the development of treatments for such phobias.
1. Small Sample
Watson and Rayner used only one participant in the baby Albert Experiment.
By just studying the responses of one participant, it is difficult to say if those responses could be generalized or not.
With no comparison available, one cannot know if these observed responses are applicable to others.
2. Doubt if it Was Really a Phobia
There were doubts if such a fear response was a phobia. This is because Watson did not find any fear response in little Albert when he sucked his thumb.
Thumb sucking reduced the impact of the conditioned fear. And Watson intentionally prevented the baby from sucking the thumb so that he could be conditioned for the fear of white rats.
3. Experiment Was Unethical
As mentioned earlier, there was no code of ethics at the time of this experiment in 1920.
Hence, going by today’s standards, the experiment was unethical on a number of grounds.
These include harming subjects, not following the principle of informed consent, not giving the right to withdraw to the participant, etc
4. Could Not Recondition Little Albert
Little Albert and his mother left the hospital where they lived. Hence, Watson and Rayner could not recondition Little Albert and remove the conditioned fear.
This could have resulted in lifelong effects on Little Albert.
How Could the Little Albert Experiment Be Improved?
Little Albert’s experiment has been criticized for certain practices that by today’s standards are unethical. As stated above, there were ethical issues in Little Albert experiment.
This is because Watson conducted the experiment at a time when no ethical guidelines for psychology researchers existed.
But if conducted considering the ethical guidelines, how could the Little Albert experiment be improved? In other words, how to make Little Albert experiment ethical?
I. Taking Informed Consent of the Participant
All the participants like children, the elderly, the disabled, etc do not possess the capability to make informed decisions. Therefore, you shouldn’t take them as participants.
Furthermore, participants should be given proper details of the experiment.
This would help them to make an informed decision of whether or not they would want to participate.
Little Albert was an infant and the consent of his mother was essential before taking him as a participant.
Unfortunately, both Watson and Rayner did not take such consent.
II. Giving the Right to Withdraw
Just as voluntary participation is essential so is maintaining the confidentiality and giving the right to withdraw to the participant.
That is to say, if the participant does not like anything in the midst of the experiment and is willing to withdraw, he must be permitted to do so.
Watson and Rayner did not give such a right to the participant.
III. Reconditioning for Removing the Fear
As mentioned earlier, Watson and Rayner could not remove the conditioned fear in Little Albert.
This proved unethical for it’s not known what long-term damage it may have caused.
IV. Causing No Harm
Researchers must take care of taking all possible steps to avoid causing any harm to the participants.
Classically conditioning Little Albert for fear of white rats which did not exist earlier. This could impact the infant for life.
In the Little Albert Experiment, behaviorist John B Watson and his collaborator Rosalie Rayner classically conditioned a nine-month infant to fear white rats which did not exist earlier.
They exposed the infant to the white rat paired with a noise of the hammer striking the metal bar.
Thus, Watson and Rayner conditioned little Alber to fear white rats.
The psychologist John B. Watson and his graduate student Rosalie Rayner conducted the Little Albert Experiment.
John B. Watson was an American Psychologist known for Waston’ Behaviorism.
Watson argued that psychology shouldn’t be defined as a science of consciousness. Rather, it must be defined as a science of behavior.
Watson and Rayner conducted the Little Albert Experiment in the year 1920 at John Hopkins University.
They undertook the experiment in a controlled laboratory environment. Both Watson and Rayner concluded that one can instill certain emotional responses in humans via classical conditioning.
In addition to this, they claimed that these conditioned emotional responses transfer to other stimuli.
Douglas Merritte died of Hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid in the brain, at the age of six on May 10, 1925.
He suffered from this disease since birth. The Psychologist Hall P Beck and his colleagues undertook research for seven years to know about Albert’ Fate and Identity.
The team, apart from identifying little Albert as Douglas Merritte also made claims about his death.
Psychologist Hall P Beck with his colleagues in the year 2012 claimed that they had identified Douglas Merritte as Albert B who died due to Hydrocephalus, a disease in which fluid builds up in the brain. According to them, Douglas died at the age of six in 1925.
Watson and his collaborator Rayner conducted the Little Albert experiment in 1920. Albert was only nine months old at this time.
Now, Albert could not give consent himself as he was an infant. Accordingly, this became one of the grounds on which the experiment was called unethical.
Albert’s mother did give her consent and was given money by Watson and Rayner to do so.
Both Watson and Rayner exposed the nine-month-old Albert to the white rat (conditioned stimulus) paired with the noise of the hammer striking the metal bar (unconditioned stimulus) to condition Little Albert to fear the white rat.
Watson exposed Albert to this pairing multiple times. This continued until Albert feared the white rats without any noise paired with it.
John B. Watson associated the white rat (conditioned stimulus) with the noise of the striking hammer on a metal bar (unconditioned stimulus) to produce the desired emotional response, that is, fear of the white rat and other related objects which did not exist earlier.
John B Watson conducted the little Albert study to show that humans could be classically conditioned for certain emotional responses. In this experiment, Watson and his colleague Rosalie Rayner exposed nine-month-old little Albert to a white rat. Initially, the infant did not show any sign of fear of white rats. Then, they exposed Albert to a loud sound of a hammer striking on a steel bar which he clearly did not like.
In fact, Little Albert started crying listening to the noise. Then a few months later, Watson exposed little Albert to the white rat together with the striking sound of the hammer. Now, Watson exposed Albert to this pairing multiple times to condition Albert for fear of white rats. Further, Watson also observed that such conditioned emotional response transfers to other objects and stimuli.
No, there were ethical issues in Little Albert experiment. For instance, Watson harmed little Albert by instilling the fear of white rats in him. Such fear did not exist prior to the experiment. Further, Watson did not follow the principle of free consent and did not give participants the right to withdraw. Finally, the method followed by Watson to undertake the experiment did not meet the highest standards.