What Was Little Albert’s Experiment?

Little Albert Experiment

Throughout the history of science, and specifically in psychology, experiments have been carried out that, although they contributed to expanding scientific knowledge, also generated a lot of controversy due to how ethically questionable they were.

In behavioral science, experiments such as the Stanford prison, Milgram’s obedience experiment and Harlow’s experiments with primates are already classics, which, after their completion, promoted changes in the deontological code in experimental psychology.

However, little albert’s experiment It has been, according to many, the most controversial experiment, given that, in it, a poor practically abandoned child was experimented on, using him as an experimental guinea pig to produce phobias. Let’s look a little deeper into the history of this experiment.

What was little Albert’s experiment?

The figure of John Broadus Watson is widely known in behavioral science, since he is considered the father of the behaviorist branch of psychology. This researcher, along with Rosalie Rayner, was the person responsible for carrying out an experiment that would not go unnoticed in the history of psychology: Little Albert’s 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 knew the works of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist who had won the Nobel Prize in physiology. in 1903 with his studies on the digestive system.

Pavlov had experimented with dogs and, while carrying out his experiments, he discovered something very interesting that would be of great use to psychology. When he presented food to his dogs, he made them start salivating. 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 got the dogs to start salivating when they heard the bell., even without being presented with food. They had associated the sound of the instrument with food. Thus, Pavlov first described the associative learning that we know today as classical conditioning. It bases the behavior of animals (and that of people) as a sequence of stimuli and responses.

Once he knew this, John B. Watson decided to radically extrapolate this classical conditioning with people, making it coincide 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 based on learned behaviors. Thus, he was not a supporter of doctrines that spoke of inherited traits and animal instincts.

Understanding this, it is not surprising that Watson thought that all human behavior depended on the experiences that the person had had. The human mind was a blank canvas, a tabula rasa 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.

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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. Their goal was to test with a very young baby.the perfect subject in Watson’s eyes, since it would be the perfect blank canvas with which to condition all types of responses without fearing that other stimuli prior to the experimentation would contaminate the results.

Watson intended to introduce a phobic response to the baby through a stimulus, which they would condition so that the child would be afraid of him. Then, they would transfer that phobic response to other stimuli with similar characteristics to the conditioned stimulus. Finally, The last phase of the experiment would consist of extinguishing the phobic response to the conditioned stimulus, that is, correct the fear that had been introduced during the experimentation. Unfortunately, unfortunately for the baby, this phase never came.

While the idea of ​​causing fear in a baby was not technically cruel, it was, in scientific terms, morally questionable, even for the time. It should be said that Watson had a very limited view of babies’ emotionality.considering that newborns could only present three recognizable feelings.

Taking into account the Watsonian definition of these three basic emotions, It is not surprising that Watson tried to make the baby afraid, since it was the easiest emotion to study. in an experimental context. Interestingly, it was the most ethically questionable to inoculate a newborn.

Subject found

After having clearly defined the objective and theoretical framework of their research, John B. Watson and his partner in research (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 received no emotional stimulation and, according to his mother, had barely cried or shown anger since he was born.. Watson was faced with his perfect experimental subject: his blank canvas.

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.

The experiment begins

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 several animals, and showed no fear. However, when Watson hit him with a metal bar, the boy did cry, confirming the idea that he was could induce a fear response in babies when faced with a sudden noise.

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Two months later, the experiment itself began. The first stimulus that Watson and Rayner wanted to condition fear was a white laboratory rat. When he presented it to Albert, the baby was curious, he even wanted to reach for it. However, his behavior began to change when the experimenters rattled a metal bar while presenting the animal to him. This procedure was practically identical to how Watson had done it with his dogs, the food, and the bell.

When the metal bar rang and he saw the white rat, the child began to cry. He leaned back, upset. They tried again, first showing him the white rat and rattling the metal bar again. The boy, who had not been afraid of the rat this time either, cried again when he heard the sound of the bell.. The researchers had just managed to meet the first condition, making the child begin to associate fear with the little animal.

At this point, and in the only show of empathy towards 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 the experiment evolved, nor the damage that would be caused to poor Albert.

In the second experimental round, Watson made up to eight more trials to ensure that the child had associated the rat with fear. On the seventh attempt he presented the white rat again by making the sharp noise of the metal bar. Finally, On the eighth attempt, only the white rat was presented, without sudden background noise.. The child, unlike how he had behaved in the first experimental sessions, this time was afraid, he cried, he did not want to touch the rat, he ran away from it.

Transferring fear

The experiment continued with two more experimental rounds, when little Albert was already about 11 months old and when he was 1 year and 21 days old. Watson wanted to check if he could transfer the fear of the white rat to other stimuli with similar characteristics, that is, those that had hair or were white.

To carry out this, the researchers used several animals and furry objects, very similar to the touch of the white rat: a rabbit, a dog and also a fur coat. When they were presented to Albert, the boy began to cry, without needing 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 little animal.

The last test, in which Albert was already one year old, was presented with an even more disconcerting stimulus, although, at first, it may have seemed innocent: a Santa Claus mask. When he saw the mask of the cheerful Christmas character, Albert also started crying, gurgling, and tried to slap the mask without actually touching it. When he was forced to touch her, he moaned and cried even more. Finally, he cried at the mere visual stimulus of the mask.

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What happened to little Albert?

The last phase of the experiment was going to be to try to remove the inoculated fears. This part was the most important, since, in theory, it was going to undo the damage that had been done. 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 because the University had been irritated by its ethical controversy.. In addition, Watson and Rayner were fired the moment the institution discovered that they had a romantic relationship, something prohibited between colleagues.

It is for all this that, after being an experimental guinea pig, Albert was lost and those fears could not be removed. His whereabouts as a child were unknown until the 2000s, when Several lines of research tried to find out what exactly had happened to the child after the end of the experiment., whether he had continued to suffer from phobias in his adult life or whether the results of Watson and Rayner did not last long. Two investigations have been considered most valid.

His name was William Barger.

One of the most reliable and plausible lines of research is quite recent, dating back to 2014. Two researchers, Russ Powell and Nancy Digdon reviewed the census and documentation from the early 20th century and They concluded that Albert was William Barger. This individual’s biological mother had worked at the same orphanage where Watson and Rayner had gotten little Albert, the Harriet Lane Home.

William Barger had died in 2007, so he could not be interviewed to make sure it was little Albert, however, Barger’s relatives said he had always had a special phobia of dogs.as well as 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 to be 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 an experimental subject of John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner. According to this research, Albert He did not live 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 by believing that he had experimented on a healthy child.but, given that hydrocephalus could have implied neurological problems, which would explain his lack of emotionality, the psychologist’s research would be strongly questioned.

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