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The Little Albert experiment was a case study showing empirical evidence of classical conditioning in humans. This study was also an example of stimulus generalization. It was carried out by John B. Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, at Johns Hopkins University. The results were first published in the February 1920 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
John B. Watson, after observing children in the field, was interested in finding support for his notion that the reaction of children, whenever they heard loud noises, was prompted by fear. Furthermore, he reasoned that this fear was innate or due to an unconditioned response. He felt that following the principles of classical conditioning, he could condition a child to fear another distinctive stimulus which normally would not be feared by a child.
The aim of Watson and Rayner was to condition phobias into an emotionally stable child. They chose Albert from a hospital for this study at the age of almost nine months. Albert's mother was a wet nurse at the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children. Albert was the son of an employee of the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where Watson and Rayner were conducting their experiments.
As the preliminary to the experiment, Little Albert was given a battery of baseline emotional tests: the infant was exposed, briefly and for the first time, to a white rabbit, a rat, a dog, a monkey, masks with and without hair, cotton wool, burning newspapers, etc. During the baseline, Little Albert showed no fear toward any of these items. Albert was then placed on a mattress on a table in the middle of a room. A white laboratory rat was placed near Albert and he was allowed to play with it. At this point, the child showed no fear of the rat. He began to reach out to the rat as it roamed around him. In later trials, Watson and Rayner made a loud sound behind Albert's back by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer when the baby touched the rat. Little Albert responded to the noise by crying and showing fear. After several such pairings of the two stimuli, Albert was again presented with only the rat. Now, however, he became very distressed as the rat appeared in the room. He cried, turned away from the rat, and tried to move away. Apparently, the baby boy had associated the white rat (original neutral stimulus, now conditioned stimulus) with the loud noise (unconditioned stimulus) and was producing the fearful or emotional response of crying (originally the unconditioned response to the noise, now the conditioned response to the rat).
This experiment led to the following progression of results:
The experiment showed that Little Albert seemed to generalize his response to furry objects so that when Watson sent a non-white rabbit into the room seventeen days after the original experiment, Albert also became distressed. He showed similar reactions when presented with a furry dog, a seal-skin coat, and even when Watson appeared in front of him wearing a Santa Claus mask with white cotton balls as his beard, although Albert did not fear everything with hair. There was some confusion when pairing the noise with the rabbit and dog.
Watson was using the same kind of classical conditioning as Pavlov used in his experiments with dogs.
This experiment did not have a control subject.
After showing fear and avoidance of the objects presented to him at the age of 1 year and 21 days, shortly after conclusion of the series of experiments, Albert was removed from the hospital. Watson wanted to desensitize him to see if a conditioned stimulus could be removed, but knew from the beginning of the study that there would not be time. As Albert left the hospital on the day the last tests were made, no desensitizing ever took place, and it is likely that Albert's conditioned fear responses and phobias would continue post-experiment.
Following the conclusion of the experiment, Watson was known to give weekend lectures describing the Little Albert study. One of these lectures was attended by Mary Cover Jones and the lecture sparked her interest in pursuing graduate work in psychology. She became known as the "mother of behavior therapy" following a study she conducted with a three-year-old named Peter. Jones' participant, Peter, already possessed a fear of white rabbits. Jones used multiple fear-reducing practices to decrease this. Her most successful method was "direct conditioning" where a pleasant stimulus, the child's favorite food, was presented along with the rabbit. The rabbit was brought closer and closer to Peter while in the presence of his favorite food. Eventually, the child became tolerant of the rabbit and was able to touch it without fear. Mary Cover Jones also did extensive research on the study of personality across the lifespan; however, the popularity of the Peter study overshadows some of her more prominent research.
In 2009, Appalachian State University psychologist Hall P. Beck and two colleagues published an article in which they claimed to have discovered the true identity "Albert B." After reviewing Watson's correspondence and publications, as well as research in public documents (such as the 1920 United States Census and state birth and death records), Beck argued that "Albert B." was a pseudonym for Douglas Merritte, the son of Arvilla Merritte, then a woman who appears to have been a wet nurse at the Harriet Lane Home. She gave birth to Douglas on March 9, 1919, at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was employed at the Harriet Lane Home and a resident of the Johns Hopkins campus at the time of Watson's experiment. Watson obtained his baseline assessment of Little Albert on or around December 5, 1919, when Douglas Merritte was 8 months 26 days old, the same age reported in Watson's article (Watson & Rayner, 1920). No descriptive data beyond a probable photograph were uncovered for Douglas and, hence, nothing is known about the enduring effects of Watson's experiment on the child. The young boy died on May 10, 1925 of hydrocephalus and was buried in the cemetery of the Locust Grove Church of the Brethren in Mount Airy, Maryland.
A number of procedures were performed on Merritte at the time to determine what was wrong. Merritte was a very ill infant who could not see well and, according to his relatives, never learned to walk or talk. The records show that the baby's hydrocephalus was congenital and not the result of meningitis (though he did contract meningitis in 1919, prior to Watson's experiment). Merritte's hydrocephalus was believed to have developed in 1922, but another team—also including Beck—revised this assertion in a 2012 article, showing instead that Merritte had hydrocephalus from birth. There is also convincing evidence that Watson was aware of the medical condition of Little Albert before starting the experiment, therefore compromising the entire validity of the experiment. The article also included assessments of the boy in the "Albert B." film by a clinical psychologist and a pediatric neurologist (Fridlund and Goldie, respectively), indicating that his responses were indicative of a neurologically compromised child. If true, this would undermine Watson & Rayner's claim that "Albert B." was a "normal" and "healthy" baby and possibly call into question the validity of a highly influential study.
A detailed review of the original study and its subsequent interpretations by Harris (1979) stated:
Critical reading of Watson and Rayner's (1920) report reveals little evidence either that Albert developed a rat phobia or even that animals consistently evoked his fear (or anxiety) during Watson and Rayner's experiment.
It may be useful for modern learning theorists to see how the Albert study prompted subsequent research [...] but it seems time, finally, to place the Watson and Rayner data in the category of "interesting but uninterpretable" results.
According to some textbooks, Albert's mother worked in the same building as Watson and didn't know the tests were being conducted. When she found out, she took Albert and moved away, letting no one know where they were going. A 2009 report claims that none of these and other fanciful tales about Little Albert were true.
Some authors write that the baby's mother was a wet nurse at the hospital. Because wet nurses were of low social status, and because she worked for the institution itself, she may have felt unable to turn down a request for her baby to be used in Watson's experiment. "Voluntary consent, as we understand the term today, was not possible to give or to withhold", they write. Presumably, most parents—if given a choice—would not allow their babies to participate in an experiment in which researchers terrify them. But she would have been in a difficult situation since she was dependent on her employer both for her job and for the medical care of her sick baby.
It is difficult to be certain exactly what happened during the Little Albert Experiment since there is a lack of concrete evidence and scientific records. Though a video was taken during the experiment, some textbooks even interpret that differently. Different sources give contradicting information on the course of events that took place surrounding the Little Albert Experiment. Some of these events include what exactly the baby in the experiment was conditioned with, what he later had fears of, and what happened to the child after the experiment.
It was found that most textbooks "suffer from inaccuracies of various degrees" while referring to Watson and Rayner's study. Texts often misrepresent and maximize the range of Albert's post-conditioning fears.
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Albert was only eight months old at the time of the first test. Because of his young age, the experiment today would be considered unethical by the American Psychological Association's ethic code (see references). Since this experiment, and others that pushed the boundaries of experimental ethics, legislation was passed to prevent unethical and potentially harmful experiments. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the Public Health Service Act, and new required education in using human research participants was put into place by the National Institutes of Health in 2000. In the early 1970s, following widely publicized cases of research abuse, The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was created to study issues surrounding the protection of humans in research. In 1979, the Commission issued a report entitled Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research (commonly called the Belmont Report), which provided the ethical framework that federal regulations for the protection of human participants in research are currently based on.
Since standards set by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in the late 1970s, Watson's experiment would not have been allowed for numerous reasons, including its unethical context. It is now measured immoral to evoke reactions of fear in humans under laboratory circumstances, except if the participant has given an informed approval to being purposely horrified as part of the experiment. Experiments should not cause the human participants to suffer unnecessary distress or to be in any way physically harmed. The welfare of the human participants must always be the paramount consideration in any form of research, and this is especially true with specially protected groups such as children.
Albert's fear was not extinguished because he moved away before systematic desensitization could be administered. It is presumed that, although he still must have had fear conditioned to many various stimuli after moving, he would likely have been desensitized by his natural environments later in life. However, today's ethical guidelines would not permit this study to be carried out or replicated.
A common belief about the experiment is that it was performed without knowledge or consent by Albert's mother. Recent investigation has shown this to be false. However, though Albert's mother may have in fact given her consent, it is also reasonable to believe that she felt pressured by a number of factors to agree to let Albert participate in the experiment even if she did have reservations. It is known that Albert's mother worked as a wet nurse at Johns Hopkins University, where Watson was employed and the experiment took place. Also, as a wet nurse, Albert's mother would have been considered to have a low social status. Since little Albert's mother was asked by a famous psychologist and fellow Johns Hopkins employee, it is possible she agreed out of fear for the future of her job and pressure from individuals with higher social power. It would have been a further source of questionable ethics for this experiment which already has some other questionable ethical components. Researchers today are required to obtain fully informed consent from participants, or—in the case of children—from their parents or guardians beforehand.
Another speculation about the Little Albert experiment concerns the health of "Little Albert", the baby used during the experiment. Whether or not that baby was indeed Douglas Merritte is unknown and has been argued by psychologists both ways. However, even if the child's identity is not Merritte, it is still believed that the baby used for the experiment suffered from some illness and Watson knew about this illness, but chose to use the child anyway.
Little Albert was featured in a 1919 film by Rayner and Watson.
A similar method of conditioning children appears in Aldous Huxley's 1932 science fiction novel Brave New World. There, children of lower castes are described as conditioned to dislike books and various objects associated with nature, like flowers, in order to better fit into their caste's assigned lifestyle.
In Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, the Infant Tyrone's penile erections are conditioned in a manner modeled on Watson and Rayner's conditioning of Little Albert, to both satirize behaviorism and wind the book's plot around Pynchon's themes of control and the institutional corruption of innocence.
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