Behavioral psychologist John B. Watson observed that fear in humans is something that is “learned” rather than something that humans are born with. One day, he decided that he should put his theory to test. The test subject? None other than an 8-month-old infant named Albert. In the classic Little Albert experiment, researchers John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner conditioned a little boy to fear a white rat. The researchers observed that the boy experienced stimulus generalization by showing fear in response to similar stimuli including a dog, a rabbit, a fur coat, a white Santa Claus beard and even Watson’s own hair.
John Watson’s classical conditioning experiment.
Born in Greenville, S.C., Watson earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1902. In 1908, he joined Hopkins as professor of experimental psychology. Everything started when John B. Watson took a deeper look into the experiments carried out by Ivan Pavlov, one of the most prominent psychologists in history. Watson was interested in conditioning processes in dogs and wanted to implement Pavlov’s experiment on humans to determine if “fear a reflex is adopted later in life or an instinct”.
Watson decided to test this on an infant.
John Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner started to observe children in the daycare center at John Hopkins University hospital. Soon, they found their perfect candidate; Little Albert. Albert’s mother made a living by selling her breast milk at the hospital. Because of this, she visited the hospital every day and Albert was left at the daycare center with the other children until his mother returned.
Watson and his graduate assistant, Rosalie Rayner, started their experiment on Little Albert.
Before carrying out one of the most inhumane experiment on an infant, Watson and his assistant had to make sure that Albert carried out emotional responses. In order to do so, Albert was introduced to objects and animals like a rat, a rabbit, paper in flames, fluffy toys and a mask for the first time. Since he did not understand fear, Albert smiled at everything and even tried to reach for the rat. After determining that he was not afraid of them, they took the objects and animals away.
The next day, the same animals and objects were shown to Little Albert and when he tried to touch them Dr. Watson banged a hammer against a metal bar; at which Little Albert jerked away from the rat. Whenever Albert tried to reach for the rat, the researchers repeated the sound.
As they expected, Little Albert’s fear transferred to other furry objects, even a fur coat.
The experiment was repeated a couple of times in the following days and soon enough, it imprinted fear in his memory. Whenever he saw a furry object, especially a white one, he became scared and distressed. At the end of the experiment, Albert gives the same response when he is presented with a ball of cotton or a white rabbit, although there was no sound. However, Watson and his assistant were not satisfied with the results. They decided to enter the room in furry costumes and as expected, Albert was afraid of them. Now they believed that Albert was conditioned and his fear was frozen in his memory.
After performing the evil and unethical experiment on Little Albert, Watson and his assistant left the hospital.
The duo considered their experiment to be a huge success since it proved classical conditioning. However, the evil and unethical experiment and maybe the most inhumane one in history was more than damaging for little Albert. He was uneasy whenever he was left alone. Even worse, the psychologists never attempted therapy for his recovery and instead left the hospital. The experiment triggered many negative reactions among the public as well as psychologists, but what was done was done.
Although what little Albert went through remains a mystery in the history of psychology, he died of hydrocephalus before he turned 7.
Little Albert’s real name was Douglas Merritte and he turned out to be a child with an unhealthy personality and phobia of white furry objects. Though the experiment provided significant data to show that fear is only a reflex that is learned, the means to achieve this result can never be justified.
Everything else aside, although individual consent is necessary for someone to participate as a subject in a study, seeing the consent of the mother only as sufficient is completely irrational. Because it was not the mother, but little Albert who had to suffer the consequences of the experiment and it was little Albert who died of distress.