Throughout the history of science, and specifically in that of psychology, experiments have been carried out that, although they contributed to expanding scientific knowledge, they also generated a lot of controversy because of how ethically questionable they were. Little albert experiment summary
In behavioral science, experiments such as the Stanford prison, Milgram’s obedience experiment, and Harlow’s experiments with primates are already classic, which, after their performance, prompted changes in the deontological code in experimental psychology.
However, little Albert’s experiment has been, according to many, the most controversial experiment, since, in it, he experimented with a poor practically abandoned child, using him as an experimental guinea pig to produce phobias. Let’s take a closer look at the history of this experiment.
What was little Albert’s experiment Summary?
The figure of John Broadus Watson is widely known in behavioral science, since he is considered the father of the behavioral branch of psychology. This researcher, along with Rosalie Rayner, was responsible for conducting an experiment that would not go unnoticed in the history of psychology : the little Albert experiment.
However, before explaining the experiment itself, it is necessary to explain the background that led Watson to carry out his well-known research. Watson was familiar with the work of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist who had won the Nobel Prize in physiology in 1903 with his studies on the digestive system. Little albert experiment summary
Pavlov had experimented with dogs and, while conducting his experiments, he discovered something very interesting that would be very useful for psychology. When he presented food to his dogs, it caused them to salivate. Pavlov wondered if he could induce this same behavior without having to present the food, but using a neutral stimulus that was associated with it: a bell.
Through several attempts, Pavlov managed to get the dogs to salivate when he heard the bell , even without food being presented to them. They had associated the sound of the instrument with food. Thus, Pavlov first described associative learning that we know today as classical conditioning. It bases the behavior of animals (and people) as a sequence of stimuli and responses.
Once he knew this, John B. Watson decided to radically extrapolate this classical conditioning with people, matching it with his ideas about how human emotional behavior worked. Watson was a radical positivist, that is, he considered that human behavior could only be studied on the basis of learned behaviors. Thus, he was not in favor of doctrines that spoke about inherited traits and animal instincts.
With this understood, it is not surprising that Watson thought that all human behavior depended on the experiences that the person had. The human mind was a blank canvas, a blank slate as the empiricist philosophers would have said, a canvas which was painted with the experiences of the individual throughout life. Through learning and conditioning, the person would be one way or another. All Watson needed was an experimental subject , a canvas with which to paint the picture that would demonstrate his theories. Little albert experiment summary
Searching for the ideal subject through science
Watson, along with Rosalie Rayner, was a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He had been working at that institution for several years when, in 1920, he was finally able to carry out his experiment. His goal was to test a very young baby , the perfect subject in Watson’s eyes, since it would be the perfect blank canvas with which to condition all kinds of responses without fearing that other stimuli prior to experimentation would contaminate the results.
Watson intended to introduce a phobic response to the baby through a stimulus, which would condition the child to fear him. Later, they would transfer that phobic response to other stimuli with characteristics similar to the conditioned stimulus. Finally, the last phase of the experiment would consist of extinguishing the phobic response to the conditioned stimulus , that is, correcting the fear that had been introduced during the experimentation. Unfortunately, unfortunately for the baby, this phase never came. Little albert experiment summary
While the idea of scaring a baby wasn’t technically cruel, it was, scientifically speaking, morally questionable, even for the time. It should be said that Watson had a very limited view of the emotionality of babies , considering that newborns could only present three recognizable feelings.
- Fear: conditioned by loud noises and lack of lift.
- Love: conditioned by caresses.
- Cholera: conditioned by the deprivation of freedom of movement.
Given the Watsonian definition of these three basic emotions, it is not surprising that Watson tried to arouse fear in the baby, since it was the easiest emotion to study in an experimental context. Interestingly, it was the most ethically questionable to inoculate a newborn.
Having clearly delineated the objective and theoretical framework of their research, John B. Watson and his research partner (and in bed) went in search of the perfect subject, finding him at the Harriet Lane Home orphanage for disabled children.
There, one of the nurses carried her newborn son, who spent hours there, almost neglected, while his mother worked. The child had not received emotional stimulation and, according to his mother, had hardly cried or expressed anger since he was born . Watson was before his perfect experimental subject: his blank canvas. Little albert experiment summary
Thus, at the age of just 8 months and 26 days, Albert was selected to be the experimental guinea pig for one of the most well-known, and ethically questionable, experiments in the history of psychology.
Start the experiment
In the first session, the child was exposed to various stimuli to find out if he was afraid of them before the experiment began. He was exposed to a campfire and various animals, and he showed no fear. However, when Watson struck with a metal bar, the child did cry, confirming the idea that a fear response could be induced in babies by a rude noise .
Two months later, the actual experiment began. The first stimulus that Watson and Rayner wanted to condition fear on him was a white laboratory rat. When presenting her to Albert, the baby was curious, even wanted to reach her. However, his behavior began to change when the experimenters sounded a metal bar while presenting the animal to him. This way of proceeding was practically identical to how Watson had done it with his dogs, the food and the bell.
When the metal bar rang and saw the white rat, the boy began to cry. He jerked back, flustered. They tried again, showing him the white rat first and rattling the metal bar again. The boy, who had not been afraid of the rat this time either, cried again at the sound of the bell . The researchers had just managed to meet the first condition, causing the child to begin to associate fear with the little animal. Little albert experiment summary
At this point, and in the only show of empathy for the baby, Watson and Rayner decided to postpone the rest of the experimental tests for a week, “so as not to seriously disturb the child . ” It should be said that this empathy would not counteract the way in which the experiment evolved, nor the damage that would be caused to poor Albert.
In the second experimental round, Watson made up to eight more attempts to make sure the child had related the rat to fear. On the seventh attempt, he presented the white rat again, making the abrupt noise of the metal bar. Finally, on the eighth try, he only presented the white rat, with no background rumbling . The child, unlike how he had behaved in the first experimental sessions, this time he was afraid, he was crying, he did not want to touch the rat, he was running away from it.
The experiment continued with two more experimental runs, when little Albert was already about 11 months old and when he was 1 year and 21 days old. Watson wanted to see if he could transfer the fear of the white rat to other stimuli with similar characteristics, that is, that they had hair or that they were white.
To do this, the researchers used several furry animals and objects, very similar to the touch of the white rat: a rabbit, a dog and, also, a fur coat. When they were introduced to Albert, the boy began to cry, without having to rattle the metal bar . The boy not only feared the white rat, but also things that looked like it. The fear was transferred to other elements similar to the animal.
The last test, in which Albert was already a year old, was presented with an even more disconcerting stimulus, even though it might seem innocent at first: a Santa Claus mask. When he saw the mask of the cheerful Christmas character, Albert also began to cry, gurgled, tried to slap the mask without actually touching it. When forced to touch her, she moaned and cried even more. Finally, he cried with the mere visual stimulus of the mask. Little albert experiment summary
What happened to little Albert?
The last phase of the experiment was to be trying to remove the inoculated fears. This part was the most important, since, in theory, it was going to involve undoing the damage that had been done to him. The problem was that such a phase never came.
According to Watson and Rayner themselves, when they tried to start this phase, little Albert had been adopted by a new family, which had moved to another city. The experiment was quickly canceled since the University had been irritated by the ethical controversy of the same . In addition, Watson and Rayner were fired the moment the institution discovered that they had a romantic relationship, something forbidden between colleagues.
It is for all this that, after being an experimental guinea pig, Albert lost track of it and could not remove those fears. The whereabouts as a child was unknown until well into the 2000s, in which several lines of research tried to find out what exactly had happened to the child after the end of the experiment , if he had continued to suffer from phobias in his adult life or if Watson and Rayner’s results did not last long. Two have been the investigations considered most valid.
His name was William Barger
One of the most reliable and plausible lines of research is fairly recent, dating back to 2014. Two researchers, Russ Powell and Nancy Digdon, reviewed the census and documentation from the early 20th century and concluded that Albert was William Barger . This individual’s biological mother had worked in the same orphanage where Watson and Rayner had gotten little Albert, the Harriet Lane Home. Little albert experiment summary
William Barger had passed away in 2007, so he could not be interviewed to make sure that he was little Albert, however, Barger’s relatives assured that he had always had a special phobia of dogs , in addition to other furry animals.
Albert had hydrocephalus
Although the hypothesis that it was William Barger seems to be the most plausible, another theory, a little older, is considered by many psychologists as the true outcome of little Albert.
Hall P. Beck and Sharman Levinson published in 2009 in the APA their line of research on how Albert lived after being the experimental subject of John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner. According to this research, Albert did not manage to live for long, dying of congenital hydrocephalus at the age of six .
This finding not only calls into question how unethical little Albert’s experiment was, but also invalidates the results obtained by Watson and Rayner. In theory, Watson explained his results believing that he had experimented with a healthy child , but since the hydrocephalus could have involved neurological problems, which would explain his lack of emotionality, the psychologist’s research would be strongly doubted.