Little Albert………The darkest day of Psychology

At the turn of the 20th Century Sigmund Freud had the monopoly on phobia formation, the unconscious projection of neurosis onto external stimuli.  The case study of Little Hans put forward by Freud was the only ‘evidence’ to support how difficulties in early development could manifest  themselves unconsciously in his 1905 study ‘ Analysis of a phobia in a 5 year old boy’. However a sea change occurred in the rise of Behaviourism which theorised that all behaviour can be explained as a direct interaction of the environment and rejected the notion of the significance of internal processes unconscious or otherwise.  The notion of Pavlovian Classical Conditioning was consistent with the Behaviorists view of  a ‘tabula rasa‘ and Watson and Raynor set about showing how a phobia, could not only be a learnt response it could also be unlearned too.  They set about doing this in the now infamous study of ‘Little Albert’ – where they ‘conditioned‘ Albert to fear a white rat when presented with the said rat and one of the only innate rear responses that of a loud noise as per the picture below.  However Watson and Rayner never completed their research due to interventions by his mother.  However the conditioning process was very successful with Albert not only showing a phobic response to the rat -he also generalised his anxiety to other similar stimuli such as rabbits.

Read the original research that Watson and Raynor published in 1920.

PsychHW - Little Albert

Little Albert -Who was he? What happened to him?  Read an overview and evaluation of the study here.

in 2010 the American Psychological Association published the following….

One of psychology’s greatest mysteries appears to have been solved. “Little Albert,” the baby behind John Watson’s famous 1920 emotional conditioning experiment at Johns Hopkins University, has been identified as Douglas Merritte, the son of a wetnurse named Arvilla Merritte who lived and worked at a campus hospital at the time of the experiment — receiving $1 for her baby’s participation.

In the study, Watson and graduate student Rosalie Rayner exposed the 9-month-old tot, whom they dubbed “Albert B,” to a white rat and other furry objects, which the baby enjoyed playing with. Later, as Albert played with the white rat, Watson would make a loud sound behind the baby’s head. After a number of conditioning trials, Watson and Rayner reintroduced the animals and furry items without the scary noise. Through the conditioning, the animals and objects that were once a source of joy and curiosity had become a trigger of fear.

Watson had no reason to reveal Albert’s true identity, and he never de-conditioned the child. (Watson was also dismissed from the university around the same time because of an affair with Rayner.) Since then, Little Albert’s fate and identity have been a recurring question among psychology scholars, including Appalachian State University psychologist Hall P. Beck, PhD, who with a team of colleagues and students, sought answers. For seven years, Beck and his associates scoured historical materials, conferred with facial recognition experts, met with relatives of the boy they theorized was Albert.

Eventually, the pieces of the puzzle came together. The attributes of Douglas and his mother matched virtually everything that was known about Albert and his mother. Like Albert’s mother, Douglas’s mother worked at a pediatric hospital on campus called the Harriet Lane Home. Like Albert, Douglas was a white male who left the home in the early 1920s and was born at the same time of year as Albert. What’s more, a comparison of a picture of Albert with Douglas’ portrait revealed facial similarities.

Sadly, the team also discovered that Douglas died at age 6 of acquired hydrocephalus, and was unable to determine if Douglas’ fear of furry objects persisted after he left Hopkins.

The team, which also included Sharman Levinson, PhD, of The American University in Paris, and Gary Irons, the grandson of Arvilla Merritte, published their findings in the October American Psychologist (Vol. 64, No. 7). The article not only satisfies a long-held curiosity, but also reflects a growing interest in the fate of research participants, says Cathy Faye, of the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron. Participants in such famous, controversial studies “have become unwitting protagonists whose stories are told over and over again in psychology textbooks,” she says. “So people become very curious: Who were they, and how did they feel about the experiment?”

Beck is pleased his students have answered some of those questions, but the real bonus, he believes, is what they gained in the research process.

“The search took them beyond the memorization of their lectures and textbooks, and for the first time, into the creative world of psychological research,” he says. “In the end, that was even more important to them than finding Albert.”

Cited from

However this has recently been challenged by Russ Powell and Nancy Digdon who proposed a second candidate Albert Barger read about their campaign here.


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