The Controversy That Surrounds the Little Albert Experiment

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The Controversy That Surrounds the Little Albert Experiment

The little albert experiment involves behavior conditioning of babies / Photo by: Zdorov Kirill Vladimirovich via Shutterstock


John B. Watson, a researcher from John Hopkins University, made a breakthrough when he pioneered the school of behaviorism. His research on behaviorism was based on the experiments conducted by Ivan Pavlov who introduced the idea of conditioning after performing experiments on dogs. Wanting to see if conditioning was applicable to humans as well, he conducted a similar experiment by using a human baby. This was how the Little Albert Experiment started.

What is Behaviorism?

Betterhelp defines behaviorism as “the school of psychology that centers on the assumption that all organisms respond to a stimulus and finding the proper stimulus leads to a deeper understanding of behaviors”.

Pavlov’s Conditioning Experiment

Pavlov had studied many disciplines before focusing on physiology, Exploring Your Mind says. The observation that dogs salivate before they were given food led him to conduct his conditioning experiments. He knew that before the dogs ate their meal, they prepared themselves to eat by salivating. This was their response to a stimulus.

In the experiments that followed, he began adding various stimuli before feeding the dogs. The stimuli soon became some sort of reminder that food was going to be delivered to them. Among the stimuli that he introduced in his experiments, the bell was the most recognized. There was evidence that whenever the dogs heard the sound of the bell, they would salivate. The dogs knew that before they would receive food, the bell would be rung first. It was through this experiment that he was able to condition the dogs. The sound of the bell was the stimulus, while the salivating of the dogs was the response.



Finding Albert

Watson, who wanted to model his experiment after Pavlov’s, desired to prove that babies were naturally frightened by loud sounds. He believed that by using loud sounds, he could elicit condition responses from the baby. He presupposes that phobias stem from external stimuli and were conditioned responses.

Rosalie Rayner, a graduate student, assisted him in his research. Together, they visited an orphanage to look for an infant who would be the only participant of their study. In that orphanage, they selected an eight-month-old baby who was said to be neglected and raised in a bad environment. However, the infant appeared to be very relaxed. Those who lived in the orphanage remarked that he does not cry often. The baby was known to be the child of a nurse who was working at the orphanage.

After choosing a baby, they gave him the name “Albert” to shield his identity and conducted experiments on him with Rayner at John Hopkins University. He wanted to emotionally condition Albert and the response that he wanted to receive from him was fear. Watson set up the experiment and had it documented by recording it on video.



Experiment Proper

Albert was presented with several stimuli in the first stage of the experiment. He wanted to find out which stimuli would make him afraid. He saw that the baby would only get scared when he listened to loud sounds, which was natural for babies. He did not display any hints of fear when he was shown fire or animals.

Next, Watson and his assistant started inciting fear in Albert through conditioning. They showed him a white rat and his first reaction was to want to play with the animal.  When he attempted to play with it, Watson produced a loud sound. This caused him to be afraid. They made Albert go through this cycle again for a number of times until he learned to fear the rat. The same procedure was done when they showed him rabbits and dogs. They also exposed him to a fur coat. As a result, Albert had been conditioned to be scared of all the stimuli that were presented to him.

For more than a year, they tested more stimuli on Albert. This made him become a baby who was so anxious that the mere sight of a Santa Claus mask stirs up fear in him. When they force Albert to touch the mask he could not stop crying.

The second stage of their experiment was to “decondition” Albert and make him unafraid of the stimuli which they trained him to be scared of. Before Watson was able to continue into this stage, the university kicked him out for performing an unethical experiment and for having a relationship with Rayner.  


Based on the experiment's conclusion, not all babies have the same traits / Photo by: Ramona Heim via Shutterstock


Why Is It Controversial?

The Little Albert Experiment is often cited as one the most excellent references for emotional conditioning, but some psychologists are against this. There are critics who say that the conclusion of the experiment is not valid because it was performed on only one baby. Babies do not have the same personalities. Some are braver than others, while others tend to be more anxious. They argue that Watson’s conditioned response would not apply to all infants.

There is also the issue that Watson may have used a sick baby for his experiment, which lessens the credibility of it. The reason why some psychologists were skeptical about the results of his experiment was because they believed they were able to reveal the real Little Albert’s identity.

Some claim that it was Douglas Meritt, who was the son of a nurse. Meritt was said to be affected by meningitis while experiments were performed on him. It was said that after five years, he died from hydrocephalus. Others debate that William Barger was the real one because his family and friends affectionately call him Albert, which is his middle name.

Lastly, using a human baby in an experiment is of itself, unethical. Manipulating a baby to gather evidence for one’s hypothesis makes the study’s conclusions ethically questionable.



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