In an article published in this month's issue of History of Psychology, researchers present compelling evidence that Little Albert, aka Douglas Merritte, was not the "normal" and "healthy" infant that behavior John B. Watson claimed him to be in his famous 1920 experiment. Instead, they discovered that the boy suffered from congenital hydrocephalus, a medical condition that can lead to problems such as tunnel vision, convulsions, mental disability and death.
Previously, psychologist Hall P. Beck Beck uncovered the mystery of Little Albert's identity and made the sad discovery that the little boy died of hydrocephalus just five years after the experiment. Further exploration revealed that the boy's condition was not caused by a bout of meningitis he suffered from two years after the Little Albert experiment as was originally believed, but that the boy had suffered from the ailment since birth.
Most disturbing, the authors of the article present convincing evidence that Watson knew about the boys neurological impairment and intentionally misrepresented the child's condition. "The Little Albert study was always controversial because of the ethics of fear-conditioning a child," explained Alan J. Fridlund, lead author and Associate Professor of Psychology at University of California at Santa Barbara. "These new findings, however, bring up issues of the widespread use of children in medical experimentation, the medical misogyny in wet nursing, the protection of the disabled, and by representing Little Albert as "healthy" and "normal," the nearly inescapable conclusion that the investigators committed scientific fraud."
Watson has long been a controversial figure in psychology. After his affair with graduate student Rosalie Rayner came to light, his marriage fell apart and he was eventually forced to leave John Hopkins University. Both his ethics and experimental methodology have long been questioned by critics. However, the evidence presented by Fridlund and Beck is compelling and, if true, places a dark shadow over Watson's legacy. "My take is that the psychology field's attitude toward Watson has always been deeply ambivalent, in part because his evangelism for, and overselling of Behaviorism aroused such fierce antagonism, and because his affair with Rayner and forced resignation from Johns Hopkins was so tawdry and embarrassing for the times," Fridlund suggested.
Read more about these new discoveries: The Sad Tale of Little Albert