Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Little Albert Experiment

A Closer Look At The Famous Case Of Little Albert.

The "Little Albert" experiment was a famous psychology experiment conducted by behaviorist John B. Watson1 and graduate student Rosalie Raynor. Previously, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov2 had conducted experiments demonstrating the conditioning process in dogs3. Watson was interested in taking Pavlov's research further to show that emotional reactions could be classically conditioned in people.

The participant in the experiment was a child that Watson and Raynor called "Albert B.", but is known popularly today as Little Albert. Around the age of nine months, Watson and Raynor exposed the child to a series of stimuli including a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey, masks and burning newspapers and observed the boy's reactions. The boy initially showed no fear of any of the objects he was shown.

The next time Albert was exposed the rat, Watson made a loud noise by hitting a metal pipe with a hammer. Naturally, the child began to cry after hearing the loud noise. After repeatedly pairing the white rat with the loud noise, Albert began to cry simply after seeing the rat.

Watson and Raynor wrote:

"The instant the rat was shown, the baby began to cry. Almost instantly he turned sharply to the left, fell over on [his] left side, raised himself on all fours and began to crawl away so rapidly that he was caught with difficulty before reaching the edge of the table."

Elements of Classical Conditioning in the Little Albert Experiment

The Little Albert experiment presents and example of how classical conditioning can be used to condition an emotional response.

Stimulus Generalization in the Little Albert Experiment

In addition to demonstrating that emotional responses could be conditioned in humans, Watson and Raynor also observed that stimulus generalization had occurred. After conditioning, Albert feared not just the white rat, but a wide variety of similar white objects as well. His fear included other furry objects including Raynor's fur coat and Watson wearing a Santa Claus beard.

Criticisms of the Little Albert Experiment

While the experiment is one of psychology's most famous and is included in nearly every introductory psychology course, it has also been criticized widely for several reasons. First, the experimental design and process was not carefully constructed. Watson and Raynor did not develop an object means to evaluate Albert's reactions, instead relying on their own subjective interpretations. Secondly, the experiment also raises many ethical concerns. The Little Albert experiment could not be conducted by today's standards because it would be unethical.

What Ever Happened to Little Albert?

The question of what happened to Little Albert has long been one of psychology's mysteries. Watson and Raynor were unable to attempt to eliminate the boy's conditioned fear because he moved with his mother shortly after the experiment ended. Some envisioned the boy growing into a man with a strange phobia of white, furry objects.

Recently, however, the true identity and fate of the boy known as Little Albert was discovered. As reported in American Psychologist, a seven-year search led by psychologist Hall P. Beck led to the discovery. After tracking down the location of the original experiments and the real identity of the boy's mother, it was discovered that Little Albert was actually a boy named Douglas Merritte.

The story does not have a happy ending, however. Douglas died at the age of six on May 10, 1925 of hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid in his brain. "Our search of seven years was longer than the little boy's life," Beck wrote of the discovery.


Beck, H. P., Levinson, S., & Irons, G. (2009). Finding little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson's infant laboratory. American Psychologist, Vol 64(7), 605-614.

Watson, John B. & Rayner, Rosalie. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.

Thanks to Kendra Cherry / Psychology About Guide / The New York Times Company


No comments: