The "Little Albert" experiment was a famous psychology experiment conducted by behaviorist John B. Watson and graduate student Rosalie Raynor. Previously, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov had conducted experiments demonstrating the conditioning process in dogs. Watson was interested in taking Pavlov's research further to show that emotional reactions could be classically conditioned in people.
The participant in the experiment was a child that Watson and Rayner called "Albert B.", but is known popularly today as Little Albert. Around the age of nine months, Watson and Rayner exposed the child to a series of stimuli including a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey, masks and burning newspapers and observed the boy's reactions. The boy initially showed no fear of any of the objects he was shown.
The next time Albert was exposed the rat, Watson made a loud noise by hitting a metal pipe with a hammer. Naturally, the child began to cry after hearing the loud noise. After repeatedly pairing the white rat with the loud noise, Albert began to cry simply after seeing the rat.
Watson and Rayner wrote:
"The instant the rat was shown, the baby began to cry. Almost instantly he turned sharply to the left, fell over on [his] left side, raised himself on all fours and began to crawl away so rapidly that he was caught with difficulty before reaching the edge of the table."
Elements of Classical Conditioning in the Little Albert Experiment
The Little Albert experiment presents and example of how classical conditioning can be used to condition an emotional response.
- Neutral Stimulus: The white rat
- Unconditioned Stimulus: The loud noise
- Unconditioned Response: Fear
- Conditioned Stimulus: The white rat
- Conditioned Response: Fear
Stimulus Generalization in the Little Albert Experiment
In addition to demonstrating that emotional responses could be conditioned in humans, Watson and Rayner also observed that stimulus generalization had occurred. After conditioning, Albert feared not just the white rat, but a wide variety of similar white objects as well. His fear included other furry objects including Raynor's fur coat and Watson wearing a Santa Claus beard.
Criticisms of the Little Albert Experiment
While the experiment is one of psychology's most famous and is included in nearly every introductory psychology course, it has also been criticized widely for several reasons. First, the experimental design and process was not carefully constructed. Watson and Rayner did not develop an object means to evaluate Albert's reactions, instead relying on their own subjective interpretations. Secondly, the experiment also raises many ethical concerns. The Little Albert experiment could not be conducted by today's standards because it would be unethical.
What Ever Happened to Little Albert?
The question of what happened to Little Albert has long been one of psychology's mysteries. Watson and Rayner were unable to attempt to eliminate the boy's conditioned fear because he moved with his mother shortly after the experiment ended. Some envisioned the boy growing into a man with a strange phobia of white, furry objects.
Recently, however, the true identity and fate of the boy known as Little Albert was discovered. As reported in American Psychologist, a seven-year search led by psychologist Hall P. Beck led to the discovery. After tracking down the location of the original experiments and the real identity of the boy's mother, it was discovered that Little Albert was actually a boy named Douglas Merritte.
The story does not have a happy ending, however. Douglas died at the age of six on May 10, 1925 of hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid in his brain. "Our search of seven years was longer than the little boy’s life," Beck wrote of the discovery.
In 2012, Beck and Alan J. Fridlund published their discovery that Douglas Merritte was not the "healthy" and "normal" child that Watson described in his 1920 experiment. Instead, they found that Merritte had suffered from hydrocephalus since birth and presented convincing evidence that Watson knew about the boy's condition and intentionally misrepresented the state of the child's health. These findings not only cast a shadow over Watson's legacy, they also deepens the ethical and moral issues of this well-known experiment.
In 2014, doubt was cast over Beck and Fridlund's findings when researchers presented evidence that a boy by the name of William Barger was the real Little Albert. Barger was born on the same day as Merritte to a wet-nurse who worked at the same hospital as Merritte's mother. While his first name was William, he was know his entire life by his middle name, Albert.
While experts continue to debate the true identity of the boy at the center of Watson's experiment, there is little doubt that Little Albert left a lasting impression of the field of psychology.
Beck, H. P., Levinson, S., & Irons, G. (2009). Finding little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson’s infant laboratory. American Psychologist, Vol 64(7), 605-614.
Fridlund, A. J., Beck, H. P., Goldie, W. D., & Irons, G. (2012). Little Albert: A neurologically impaired child. History of Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0026720
Watson, John B. & Rayner, Rosalie. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.