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The Little Albert Experiment

A Closer Look at the Famous Case of Little Albert

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

the little albert case study

Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.

the little albert case study

A Closer Look

Classical conditioning, stimulus generalization, criticism and ethical issues, what happened to little albert.

The Little Albert experiment was a famous psychology experiment conducted by behaviorist John B. Watson and graduate student Rosalie Rayner. Previously, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov had conducted experiments demonstrating the conditioning process in dogs . Watson took Pavlov's research a step further by showing that emotional reactions could be classically conditioned in people.

Verywell / Jessica Olah

The participant in the experiment was a child that Watson and Rayner called "Albert B." but is known popularly today as Little Albert. When Little Albert was 9 months old, Watson and Rayner exposed him 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 to 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 expect a frightening noise whenever he saw the white rate. Soon, 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."

The Little Albert experiment presents an example of how classical conditioning can be used to condition an emotional response.

  • Neutral Stimulus : A stimulus that does not initially elicit a response (the white rat).
  • Unconditioned Stimulus : A stimulus that elicits a reflexive response (the loud noise).
  • Unconditioned Response : A natural reaction to a given stimulus (fear).
  • Conditioned Stimulus : A stimulus that elicits a response after repeatedly being paired with an unconditioned stimulus (the white rat).
  • Conditioned Response : The response caused by the conditioned stimulus (fear).

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.

While the experiment is one of psychology's most famous and is included in nearly every introductory psychology course , it is widely criticized for several reasons. First, the experimental design and process were not carefully constructed. Watson and Rayner did not develop an objective means to evaluate Albert's reactions, instead of relying on their own subjective interpretations.

The experiment also raises many ethical concerns. Little Albert was harmed during this experiment—he left the experiment with a previously nonexistent fear. By today's standards, the Little Albert experiment would not be allowed.

The question of what happened to Little Albert has long been one of psychology's mysteries. Before Watson and Rayner could attempt to "cure" Little Albert, he and his mother moved away. Some envisioned the boy growing into a man with a strange phobia of white, furry objects.

Recently, 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 and locating the original experiments and the real identity of the boy's mother, it was suggested 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), which he had suffered from since birth. "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 reported that Douglas was not the healthy, normal child Watson described in his 1920 experiment. They presented convincing evidence that Watson knew about and deliberately concealed the boy's neurological condition. These findings not only cast a shadow over Watson's legacy, but they also deepened 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 known 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 on the field of psychology.

Beck HP, Levinson S, Irons G. Finding Little Albert: a journey to John B. Watson's infant laboratory . Am Psychol. 2009;64(7):605-14. doi:10.1037/a0017234

Van Meurs B. Maladaptive Behavioral Consequences of Conditioned Fear-Generalization: A Pronounced, Yet Sparsely Studied, Feature of Anxiety Pathology . Behav Res Ther. 2014;57:29–37.

Fridlund AJ, Beck HP, Goldie WD, Irons G. Little Albert: A neurologically impaired child . Hist Psychol. 2012;15(4):302-27. doi:10.1037/a0026720

Powell RA. Correcting the record on Watson, Rayner, and Little Albert: Albert Barger as "psychology's lost boy" . Am Psychol.  2014;69(6):600-11.

  • Beck, H. P., Levinson, S., & Irons, G. (2009). Finding little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson’s infant laboratory.  American Psychologist, 2009;64(7):  605-614.
  • Fridlund, A. J., Beck, H. P., Goldie, W. D., & Irons, G. Little Albert: A neurologically impaired child. History of Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0026720; 2012.
  • Watson, John B. & Rayner, Rosalie. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions.  Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3 , 1-14.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

The Little Albert Experiment

practical psychology logo

The Little Albert Experiment is a world-famous study in the worlds of both behaviorism and general psychology. Its fame doesn’t just come from astounding findings. The story of the Little Albert experiment is mysterious, dramatic, dark, and controversial.

The Little Albert Experiment was a study conducted by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner in 1920, where they conditioned a 9-month-old infant named "Albert" to fear a white rat by pairing it with a loud noise. Albert later showed fear responses to the rat and other similar stimuli.

The Little Albert Experiment is one of the most well-known and controversial psychological experiments of the 20th century. In 1920, American psychologist John B. Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, carried out a study. Their goal was to explore the concept of classical conditioning. This theory proposes that individuals can learn to link an emotionless stimulus with an emotional reaction through repeated pairings.

For their experiment, Watson and Rayner selected a 9-month-old infant named "Albert" and exposed him to a series of stimuli, including a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, and various masks. Initially, Albert showed no fear of any of these objects. However, when the researchers presented the rat to him and simultaneously struck a steel bar with a hammer behind his head, Albert began to cry and show signs of fear. After several repetitions of this procedure, Albert began to show a fear response to the rat alone, even when the loud noise was not present.

The experiment was controversial because of its unethical nature. Albert could not provide informed consent, and his fear response was deliberately induced and not treated. Additionally, the experiment lacked scientific rigor regarding experimental design, sample size, and ethical considerations. Despite these criticisms, the Little Albert Experiment has had a significant impact on the field of psychology, particularly in the areas of behaviorism and classical conditioning. It has also raised important questions about the ethics of research involving human subjects and the need for informed consent and ethical guidelines in scientific studies.

Let's learn who was behind this experiment...

Who Was John B. Watson?

john b watson

John B. Watson is pivotal in psychology's annals, marked by acclaim and controversy. Often hailed as the "Father of Behaviorism," his contributions extend beyond the well-known Little Albert study. At Johns Hopkins University, where much of his groundbreaking work was conducted, he delivered the seminal lecture "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It."

This speech laid the foundation for behaviorism, emphasizing observable and measurable behavior over introspective methods, a paradigm shift in how psychological studies were approached. Watson's insistence on studying only observable behaviors positioned psychology more closely with the natural sciences, reshaping the discipline. Although he achieved significant milestones at Johns Hopkins, Watson's tenure there ended in 1920 under controversial circumstances, a story we'll delve into shortly.

Classical Conditioning

John B. Watson was certainly influential in classical conditioning, but many credit the genesis of this field to another notable psychologist: Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov's groundbreaking work with dogs laid the foundation for understanding classical conditioning, cementing his reputation in the annals of psychological research.

Classical conditioning is the process wherein an organism learns to associate one stimulus with another, leading to a specific response. Pavlov's experiment is a quintessential example of this. Initially, Pavlov observed that dogs would naturally salivate in response to food. During his experiment, he introduced a neutral stimulus, a bell, which did not produce any specific response from the dogs.

However, Pavlov began to ring the bell just before presenting the dogs with food. After several repetitions, the dogs began to associate the sound of the bell with the forthcoming food. Remarkably, even without food, ringing the bell alone led the dogs to salivate in anticipation. This involuntary response was not a behavior the dogs were intentionally trained to perform; instead, it was a reflexive reaction resulting from the association they had formed between the bell and the food.

Pavlov's research was not just about dogs and bells; its significance lies in the broader implications for understanding how associative learning works, influencing various fields from psychology to education and even marketing.

Who Was Little Albert?

John B. Watson took an idea from this theory. What if...

  • ...all of our behaviors were the result of classical conditioning?
  • ...we salivated only after connecting certain events with getting food?
  • ...we only became afraid of touching a stove after we first put our hand on a hot stove and felt pain?
  • ...fear was something we learned? 

These are the questions that Watson attempted to answer with Little Albert.

little albert experiment

Little Albert was a nine-month-old baby. His mother was a nurse at Johns Hopkins University, where the experiment was conducted. The baby’s name wasn’t really Albert - it was just a pseudonym that Watson used for the study. Due to the baby’s young age, Watson thought it would be a good idea to use him to test his hypothesis about developing fear.

Here’s how he conducted his experiment, now known as the “Little Albert Experiment.”

Watson exposed Little Albert to a handful of different stimuli. The stimuli included a white rat, a monkey, a hairy mask, a dog, and a seal-skin coat. When Watson first observed Little Albert, he did not fear any stimuli, including the white rat.

Then, Watson began the conditioning.

He would introduce the white rat back to Albert. Whenever Little Albert touched the rat, Watson would smash a hammer against a steel bar behind Albert’s head. Naturally, this stimulus scared Albert, and he would begin to cry. This was the “bell” of Pavlov’s experiment, but you can already see that this experiment is far more cruel.

ivan pavlov

Like Pavlov’s dogs, Little Albert became conditioned. Whenever he saw the rat, he would cry and try to move away from the rat. Throughout the study, he exhibited the same behaviors when exposed to “hairy” stimuli. This process is called stimulus generalization. 

What Happened to Little Albert?

The Little Albert study was conducted in 1920. Shortly after the findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Johns Hopkins gave Watson a 50% raise . However, the rise (and Watson’s position at the University) did not last long. At the end of 1920, Watson was fired.

Why? At first, the University claimed it was due to an affair. Watson conducted the Little Albert experiment with his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner. They fell in love, despite Watson’s marriage to Mary Ickes. Ickes was a member of a prominent family in the area, upon the discovery of the affair, Watson and Rayner’s love letters were published in a newspaper. John Hopkins claimed to fire Watson for “indecency.”

Years later, rumors emerged that Watson wasn’t fired simply for his divorce. Watson and Rayner were allegedly conducting behaviorist experiments concerning sex. Those rumors included claims that Watson, a movie star handsome then, had even hooked devices up to him and Rayner while they engaged in intercourse. These claims seem false, but they appeared in psychology textbooks for years. 

There is so much to this story that is wild and unusual! Upon hearing this story, one of the biggest questions people ask is, “What happened to Little Albert?”

The True Story of the Little Albert Experiment

Well, this element of the story isn’t without uncertainty and rumor. In 2012, researchers claimed to uncover the true story of Little Albert. The boy’s real name was apparently Douglas Merritte, who died at the age of seven. Merritt had a serious condition of built-up fluid in the brain. This story element was significant - Watson claimed Little Albert was a healthy and normal child. If Merritte were Little Albert, then Watson’s lies about the child’s health would ruin his legacy.

And it did until questions about Merritte began to arise. Further research puts another candidate into the ring: William Albert Barger. Barger was born on the same day in the same hospital as Merritte. His mother was a wet nurse in the same hospital where Watson worked. Barger’s story is much more hopeful than Merritte’s - he died at 87. Researchers met with his niece, who claimed that her uncle was particularly loving toward dogs but showed no evidence of fear that would have been developed through the famous study.

The mystery lives on.

Criticisms of the Little Albert Experiment

This story is fascinating, but psychologists note it is not the most ethical study.

The claims about Douglas Merritte are just one example of how the study could (and definitely did) cross the lines of ethics. If Little Albert was not the healthy boy that Watson claimed - well, there’s not much to say about the findings. Plus, the experiment was only conducted on one child. Follow-up research about the child and his conditioning never occurred (but this is partially due to the scandalous life of Watson and Rayner.)

Behaviorism, the school of psychology founded partly by this study, is not as “hot” as it was in the 1920s. But no one can deny the power and legacy of the Little Albert study. It is certainly one of the more important studies to know in psychology, both for its scandal and its place in studying learned behaviors.

Other Controversial Studies in Psychology 

The Little Albert Experiment is one of the most notorious experiments in the history of psychology, but it's not the only one. Psychologists throughout the past few decades have used many unethical or questionable means to test out (or prove) their hypotheses. If you haven't heard about the following experiments, you can read about them on my page!

The Robbers Cave Experiment

Have you ever read  Lord of the Flies?  The book details the shocking and deadly story of boys stranded on a desert island. When the boys try to govern themselves, lines are drawn in the sand, and chaos ensues. Would that actually happen in real life?

Muzafer Sherif wanted to find out the answer. He put together the Robbers Cave Experiment, which is now one of the most controversial experiments in psychology history. The experiment involved putting together two teams of young men at a summer camp. Teams were put through trials to see how they would handle conflict within their groups and with "opposing" groups. The experiment's results led to the creation of the Realistic Conflict Theory.

The experiment did not turn out like  Lord of the Flies,  but the results are no longer valid. Why? Sherif highly manipulated the experiment. Gina Perry's The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment  details where Sherif went wrong and how the legacy of this experiment doesn't reflect what actually happened.

Read more about the Robber's Cave Experiment .

The Stanford Prison Experiment 

The Stanford Prison Experiment looked similar to the Robbers Cave Experiment. Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo brought together groups of young men to see how they would interact with each other. These participants, however, weren't at summer camp. Zimbardo asked his participants to either be a "prison guard" or "prisoner." He intended to observe the groups for seven days, but the experiment was cut short.

Why? Violence ensued. The experiment got so out of hand that Zimbardo ended it early for the safety of the participants. Years later, sources question whether his involvement in the experiment encouraged some violence between prison guards and prisoners. You can learn more about the Stanford Prison Experiment on Netflix or by reading our article.

The Milgram Experiment 

Why do people do terrible things? Are they evil people, or do they just do as they are told? Stanley Milgram wanted to answer these questions and created the Milgram experiment . In this experiment, he asked participants to "shock" another participant (who was really just an actor receiving no shocks at all.) The shocks ranged in intensity, with some said to be hurtful or even fatal to the actor.

The results were shocking - no pun intended! However, the experiment remains controversial due to the lasting impacts it could have had on the participants. Gina Perry also wrote a book about this experiment - Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. 

The Monster Study 

In the 1930s, Dr. Wendell Johnson was keen on exploring the origins and potential treatments for stuttering in children. To this end, he turned to orphans in Iowa, unknowingly involving them in his experiment. Not all the participating children had a stutter. Those without speech impediments were treated and criticized as if they did have one, while some with actual stuttering were either praised or criticized. Johnson's aim was to observe if these varied treatments would either alleviate or induce stuttering based on the feedback given.

Unfortunately, the experiment's outcomes painted a bleak picture. Not only did the genuine stutterers fail to overcome their speech issues, but some of the previously fluent-speaking orphans began to stutter after experiencing the negative treatment. Even by the standards of the 1930s, before the world was fully aware of the inhumane experiments conducted by groups like the Nazis, Johnson's methods were deemed excessively harsh and unethical.

Read more about the Monster Study here .

How Do Psychologists Conduct Ethical Experiments?

To ensure participants' well-being and prevent causing trauma, the field of psychology has undergone a significant evolution in its approach to research ethics. Historically, some early psychological experiments lacked adequate consideration for participants' rights or well-being, leading to trauma and ethical dilemmas. Notable events, such as the revelations of the Milgram obedience experiments and the Stanford prison experiment, brought to light the pressing need for ethical guidelines in research.

As a result, strict rules and guidelines for ethical experimentation were established. One fundamental principle is informed consent: participants must know that they are part of an experiment and should understand its nature. This means they must be informed about the procedures, potential risks, and their rights to withdraw without penalty. Participants consent to participate only after this detailed disclosure, which must be documented.

Moreover, creating ethics review boards became commonplace in research institutions, ensuring research proposals uphold ethical standards and protect participants' rights. If you are ever invited to participate in a research study, it's crucial to thoroughly understand its scope, ask questions, and ensure your rights are protected before giving consent. The journey to establish these ethical norms reflects the discipline's commitment to balancing scientific advancement with the dignity and well-being of its study subjects.

Related posts:

  • John B. Watson (Psychologist Biography)
  • The Psychology of Long Distance Relationships
  • Behavioral Psychology
  • Beck’s Depression Inventory (BDI Test)
  • Operant Conditioning (Examples + Research)

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The Little Albert Experiment (Summary)

The Little Albert Experiment is a famous psychology study on the effects of behavioral conditioning. Conducted by John B. Watson and his assistant, graduate student, Rosalie Raynor, the experiment used the results from research carried out on dogs by Ivan Pavlov — and took it one step further.

What was the Little Albert Experiment?

Watson used Pavlov’s research and designed an experiment to see if emotional responses could be classically conditioned in humans.

Watson wanted to see if the fearful reaction he had previously observed when children were exposed to loud noises was something that could be conditioned in response to an unrelated stimulus; in other words, something the child would not normally fear.

Who Was Little Albert?

Little Albert was the subject of Watson’s experiment. Many of the facts of the experiment are somewhat sketchy and over the years there have been conflicting reports as to whom Little Albert actually was, but it is generally believed that he was a 9 month old baby boy born and raised in a home for Invalid Children.

At 8 months old, Watson tested the child to see if he showed a fear response to a loud noise. Initially the child was startled, but not afraid, but by the time he heard the loud noise for the third time, he was extremely frightened.

For the next baseline stage of the experiment, Watson introduced a series of random objects to the boy: a white rat, a monkey, a rabbit, burning newspapers, cotton wool, plus others. At this point the boy was unafraid of the objects.

Next, Watson introduced the white rat to the child. Initially he was happy to play with the rat and showed no fear, but in subsequent tests, each time the child reached out to touch the rat, he heard a loud noise.

Before long the child exhibited a fear response and became extremely distressed whenever he was exposed to the white rat, even when he heard no loud noise. From this, Watson concluded the child had been conditioned to feel an emotional response (fear) to a neutral stimulus.

What Were the Further Findings of the Little Albert Experiment?

Having successfully conditioned a fear response in the child, Watson was keen to see if the same response could be transferred to other inanimate objects. When presented with the feared rat, the child was also introduced to other objects.

Over time, the child also showed fear when exposed to a wide range of similar furry objects, including a rabbit, a fluffy dog, a seal skin coat, and a Santa Claus mask with a beard made from white cotton wool balls.

What Happened After the Little Albert Experiment?

Although Watson had intended to see if it was possible to desensitize the child to his conditioned response of fear towards furry objects, unfortunately, for reasons unknown, the mother took the boy away and the experiment was discontinued.

What Were the Ethical Criticisms Made of the Little Albert Experiment?

There is little doubt that the Little Albert Experiment would not be allowed to take place today due to the young age of the subject and the immorality of causing unnecessary distress for the purposes of psychological research.

However, despite the shady ethics of the experiment, Watson’s Little Albert research highlighted some very important findings in the field of behavioral science and today’s counter conditioning therapy in the treatment of phobias owes a great deal to the early work of Watson and his associates.

You can watch the video about the experiment below:

Related Articles:

  • What is The Lucifer Effect? (Summary) What is the Lucifer Effect Summary? The Lucifer Effect is the title of a book written by Philip Zimbardo, the man responsible for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. In his 2004 book, Zimbardo discusses whether ordinary, average, or even good people can become the perpetrators of diabolical acts of evil....
  • Classical Conditioning Experiment Ideas Ivan Pavlov first demonstrated classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian respondent conditioning, when he noticed dogs could be “conditioned” to salivate to a stimulus when it became associated with food. Today, “Pavlov’s dog” is a phrase commonly used when a person or animal has developed a conditioned response to a...
  • What are the Milgram Experiment Ethical Issues? The Milgram Experiment was a series of experimental studies that took place in the 1960s to investigate how willing subjects were to obey an authority figure even when their actions directly conflicted with their personal conscience. The experiments proved to be extremely controversial and were considered to be highly unethical...
  • What are the Zimbardo Prison Experiment Ethical Issues? The Stanford Prison Experiment was designed to explore the psychological impact of the prison environment on prisoners and prison guards. Although Zimbardo intended the experiment to last two weeks, it was abruptly halted after only six days due to the increasingly disturbing behavioral traits being exhibited by the "prisoners" and...
  • Stanford Prison Experiment Summary The Stanford Prison Experiment Summary is a famous psychology experiment that was designed to study the psychological impact of becoming a prison guard or prisoner. The experiment was conducted by Professor of Psychology, Philip Zimbardo, at Stanford University in 1971. Although it was originally intended to last for two weeks,...

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September 21, 2017 at 3:38 pm

this terrible, how could any one even think about doing this. Little Albert has to now live with what has happened to him, even though he should not have too.

' src=

September 15, 2019 at 5:28 pm

Little Albert’s real name is Douglas Mweeitte and died at the age of 6 in 1925 due to a build-up of fluid in his brain. RIP

September 15, 2019 at 5:29 pm

' src=

August 16, 2017 at 7:50 am

the experiment was cruel .

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The Little Albert Experiment

October 13, 2022

The Little Albert Experiment is a world-famous study in the worlds of both behaviorism and general psychology. Its fame doesn’t just come from astounding findings. The story of the Little Albert experiment is mysterious, dramatic, dark, and controversial.

But before we get into the gritty details of the study, let’s talk about the man behind the study: John B. Watson.

john b watson

Who Was John B. Watson?

John B. Watson is a controversial and highly important figure in the world of psychology. He is known as the “Father of Behaviorism” for the Little Albert study and other work. His most profound work, including the creation of a speech called “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” took place while he was at Johns Hopkins University. Watson was fired from Johns Hopkins in 1920 – but we’ll get to that later.

Classical Conditioning

John B. Watson is not the only psychologist known for his work on classical conditioning. The more famous psychologist in this study is Ivan Pavlov. He, and his famous dog study, are considered the “founders” of classical conditioning .

Classical conditioning is the process of learning behavior through two different stimuli. At first, the stimuli are not connected. (In the case of Pavlov, the stimuli were the bell and the food.) Through the classical conditioning process, the dogs connected the sound of the bell and got food. The sound of the bell eventually elicited a response – the dogs started salivating. The experiment was not meant to train the dogs to salivate, but that was the response.

Who Was Little Albert?

John B. Watson took an idea from this theory. What if…

  • …all of our behaviors were the result of classical conditioning?
  • …we salivated only after connecting certain events with getting food?
  • …we only became afraid of touching a stove after we first put our hand on a hot stove and felt pain?
  • …fear was something we learned? 

These are the questions that Watson attempted to answer with Little Albert.

little albert experiment

Little Albert was a nine-month-old baby. His mother was a nurse at Johns Hopkins University where the experiment was conducted. The baby’s name wasn’t really Albert – it was just a pseudonym that Watson used for the study. Due to the baby’s young age, Watson thought it would be a good idea to use him to test his hypothesis about developing fear.

Here’s how he conducted his experiment, which is now known as the “Little Albert Experiment.”

Watson exposed Little Albert to a handful of different stimuli. Among the stimuli included a white rat, a monkey, a hairy mask, a dog, and a seal-skin coat. When Watson first observed Little Albert, he showed no fear of any of the stimuli, including the white rat.

Then, Watson began the conditioning.

He would introduce the white rat back to Albert. Whenever Little Albert touched the rat, Watson would smash a hammer against a steel bar behind Albert’s head. Naturally, this stimuli scared Albert and he would begin to cry. This was the “bell” of Pavlov’s experiment, but you can already see that this experiment is far more cruel.

ivan pavlov

Like Pavlov’s dogs, Little Albert became conditioned. Whenever he saw the rat, he would cry and try to move away from the rat. Throughout the study, he exhibited the same behaviors when exposed to any sort of “hairy” stimuli. This process is called stimulus generalization. 

What Happened to Little Albert?

The Little Albert study was conducted in 1920. Shortly after the findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Johns Hopkins gave Watson a 50% raise . However, the raise – and Watson’s position at the University – did not last long. At the end of 1920, Watson was fired.

Why? At first, the University claimed it was due to an affair. Watson conducted the Little Albert experiment with his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner. They fell in love, despite Watson’s marriage to Mary Ickes. Ickes was a member of a prominent family in the area – upon the discovery of the affair, Watson and Rayner’s love letters were published in a newspaper. John Hopkins claimed to fire Watson for “indecency.”

Years later, rumors emerged that Watson wasn’t fired simply for his divorce. Watson and Rayner were allegedly conducting behaviorist experiments concerning sex. Those rumors included claims that Watson, who was movie-star handsome at the time, had even hooked devices up to him and Rayner while they engaged in intercourse. These claims seem to be false, but they appeared in psychology textbooks for years. 

There is so much to this story that is wild and unusual! One of the biggest questions that people ask upon hearing this story is “What happened to Little Albert?”

The True Story of the Little Albert Experiment

Well, this element of the story isn’t without uncertainty and rumor. In 2012, researchers claimed to uncover the true story of Little Albert. The boy’s real name was apparently Douglas Merritte, who died at the age of seven. Merritte had a serious condition of built-up fluid in the brain. This element of the story was significant – Watson claimed that Little Albert was a healthy and normal child. If Merritte was Little Albert, then Watson’s lies about the child’s health would seriously put an ugly mark on his legacy.

And it did, until questions about Merritte began to arise. Further research puts another candidate into the ring: William Albert Barger. Barger was born on the same day, in the same hospital as Merritte. His mother was a wet nurse in the same hospital where Watson worked. Barger’s story is a lot more hopeful than Merritte’s – he died at age 87. Researchers met with his niece, who claimed that her uncle was particularly loving toward dogs but otherwise showed no evidence of fear that would have been developed through the famous study.

The mystery lives on.

Criticisms of the Little Albert Experiment

This is certainly a fascinating story, but psychologists do note that it is not the most ethical study.

The claims about Douglas Merritte are just one example of how the study could (and definitely did) cross the lines of ethics. If Little Albert was not the healthy boy that Watson claimed – well, there’s not much to say about the findings. Plus, the experiment was only conducted on one child. Follow-up research about the child and his conditioning never occurred (but this is partially due to the scandalous life led by Watson and Rayner.)

Behaviorism, the school of psychology founded in part by this study, is not as “hot” as it was back in the 1920s. But no one can deny the power and legacy of the Little Albert study. It is certainly one of the more important studies to know in psychology, both for its scandal and for its place in studying learned behaviors.

Other Controversial Studies in Psychology 

The Little Albert Experiment is one of the most notorious experiments in the history of psychology, but it’s not the only one. Psychologists throughout the past few decades have used many unethical or questionable means to test out (or prove) their hypotheses. If you haven’t heard about the following experiments, you can read about them on my page!

The Robbers Cave Experiment

Have you ever read  Lord of the Flies?  The book details the shocking and deadly story of boys who are stranded on a desert island. When the boys try to govern themselves, lines are drawn in the sand and chaos ensues. Would that actually happen in real life?

Muzafer Sherif wanted to find out the answer. He put together the Robbers Cave Experiment, which is now one of the most controversial experiments in psychology history. The experiment involved putting together two teams of young men at a summer camp. Teams were put through trials to see how they would handle conflict within their groups and with “opposing” groups. The results of the experiment led to the creation of the Realistic Conflict Theory.

The experiment did not turn out like  Lord of the Flies,  but the results are no longer considered valid. Why? Sherif highly manipulated the experiment. Gina Perry’s The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment  details where Sherif went wrong and how the legacy of this experiment doesn’t reflect what actually happened.

The Stanford Prison Experiment 

The Stanford Prison Experiment looked similar to the Robbers Cave Experiment. Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo brought together groups of young men to see how they would interact with each other. These participants, however, weren’t at summer camp. Zimbardo asked his participants to either play the role of “prison guard” or “prisoner.” He intended to observe the groups for seven days, but the experiment was cut short.

Why? Violence ensued. The experiment got so out of hand that Zimbardo ended it early for the safety of the participants. Years later, sources question whether his involvement in the experiment actually  encouraged  some of the violence between prison guards and prisoners. You can learn more about the Stanford Prison Experiment on Netflix.

The Milgram Experiment 

Why do people do terrible things? Are they evil people, or do they just do as they are told? Stanley Milgram wanted to answer these questions, so he created the Milgram experiment. In this experiment, he asked participants to “shock” another participant (who was really just an actor receiving no shocks at all.) The shocks ranged in intensity, with some said to be hurtful or even fatal to the actor.

The results were shocking – no pun intended! But the experiment remains controversial due to the lasting impacts it could have had on the participants. Gina Perry has also written a book about this experiment – Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. 

The Monster Study 

In the 1930s, Dr. Wendell Johnson wanted to know what caused children to have a stutter or get over their stutter. To find out, he recruited the help of orphans in Iowa. Well, he didn’t actually recruit them – the students were participants but didn’t know it. Only some of these participants actually had a stutter. Others were treated like they had a stutter. Johnson used different forms of praise or criticism to see if that would help them “get over” their speed impediment.

The results didn’t look great for Johnson. Orphans with stutters didn’t “get over” their speech impediment. Some of the orphans who didn’t have a speech impediment  developed one  after being treated so cruelly. Even in the 1930s, before the cruel treatment of groups like the Nazis was public, Johnson’s experiment was considered very cruel.

How Do Psychologists Conduct Ethical Experiments?

To avoid causing trauma to future participants in experiments, psychologists follow rules and guidelines for ethical experimentation. Subjects should know when they are in an experiment. They need to consent to the treatment they are receiving. Documentation of that consent must be recorded before treatment begins. If you are ever asked to be a participant in an experiment, be sure to ask questions about what the experiment consists of before signing away your rights.

Related posts:

  • John B. Watson (Psychologist Biography)
  • Philip Zimbardo (Biography + Experiments)
  • 40+ Famous Psychologists (Images + Biographies)
  • Ivan Pavlov (Biography + Experiments)

the little albert case study

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the little albert case study

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What is the little albert experiment in behavioral science, what is the little albert experiment.

Definition: The Little Albert Experiment was a psychological study conducted by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner in 1920. The experiment aimed to demonstrate classical conditioning, a form of associative learning, in humans. The researchers sought to show that a child could be conditioned to develop a fear response to a previously neutral stimulus.

What are findings of The Little Albert Experiment?

Conditioned fear response.

The first finding of the Little Albert Experiment was that a fear response could be induced in a previously unafraid infant through classical conditioning. The infant, referred to as “Little Albert,” was exposed to a loud noise (the unconditioned stimulus) whenever he reached for a white rat (the neutral stimulus), eventually causing him to associate the rat with the noise and develop a fear response to the rat (the conditioned stimulus).

Generalization

The 2nd finding of the Little Albert Experiment was that the conditioned fear response could generalize to other stimuli that shared similar characteristics with the original conditioned stimulus. Little Albert’s fear of the white rat extended to other white, furry objects, such as a rabbit, a dog, and a fur coat.

Emotional Reactions

The 3rd finding of the Little Albert Experiment was that emotional reactions could be conditioned, providing evidence for Watson’s behaviorist theory, which posited that emotions are learned behaviors that can be manipulated through conditioning.

Examples of The Little Albert Experiment

Original little albert study.

The first example of the Little Albert Experiment was the original study conducted by Watson and Rayner, in which they successfully conditioned an infant to develop a fear response to a white rat by pairing the rat with a loud noise.

Subsequent Research on Classical Conditioning

The 2nd example of the Little Albert Experiment is its lasting impact on subsequent research in classical conditioning, influencing the development of studies on conditioned emotional responses and phobias, as well as treatments for phobias and other anxiety disorders, such as systematic desensitization and exposure therapy.

Shortcomings and Criticisms of The Little Albert Experiment

Ethical concerns.

The first criticism of the Little Albert Experiment was its ethical implications. Deliberately inducing fear in an infant without consent and without attempts to reverse the conditioning is considered unethical by today’s standards and would not be permitted under current research guidelines.

Methodological Issues

The 2nd criticism of the Little Albert Experiment was methodological in nature. The small sample size (only one infant), lack of control group, and potential confounding variables limit the generalizability and validity of the study’s findings.

Incomplete Data

The 3rd criticism of the Little Albert Experiment was the incomplete data and lack of follow-up. The experiment did not address the long-term effects of the conditioning or explore possible methods of reversing the learned fear response, leaving many unanswered questions regarding the persistence and malleability of conditioned emotional responses.

Related Behavioral Science Terms

Belief perseverance, crystallized intelligence, extraneous variable, representative sample, factor analysis, egocentrism, stimulus generalization, reciprocal determinism, divergent thinking, convergent thinking, social environment, decision making, related articles.

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Watson and rayner (1920) little albert – behavioural, watson, j. b. and rayner, r. (1920) ‘conditioned emotional reaction’, journal of experimental psychology 3, 1–14.

This is the second study we will be looking at from the ‘Explanations of Dysfunctional Behaviour’ section of ‘Dysfunctional Behaviour’ , as part of your OCR A2 Health and Clinical Psychology course. It is further categorised into ‘ Behavioural . ‘

Watson and Rayner (1920) – successfully managed to condition fear into a toddler using classical conditioning.

Watson and Raynor had four aims:

  • To see if it is possible to induce a fear of a previously neutral stimulus  through classical conditioning. 
  • To see if the fear will be transferred to other similar objects.
  • To see what effect time has on the fear response.
  • To see how possible it is to remove the fear response in the laboratory.

Method and Design

A case study using classical conditioning undertaken on one boy: ‘Little Albert’.

Little Albert was a pseudonym given to protect the identity of the child.

Participants

One participant. Little Albert, prior to the study there was nothing abnormal about Little Albert, in fact he was quite normal and had no fears, which is why he was selected. He lived in the hospital in which the study was conducted. This was because his mother was a nurse at the hospital.

Albert’s baseline reactions to the stimuli were noted. He showed no fear when presented with a rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, a mask with hair, or cotton wool. 

When Albert was 11 months old the experiments started.

Session One:  Albert was presented with a rat. Just as he reached for it, a steel bar behind him was hit. This procedure was repeated. 

After two presentations Albert was given a week off. 

Session Two:  The following week the rat alone was presented.

Then three presentations were made with the rat and the loud noise. 

This was followed with one presentation of just the rat.

Then two more presentations with the rat and the noise were made.

Finally the rat alone was presented.

So far Albert had had 7 presentations of the rat with the noise.

Session Three: 

Albert was brought back five days later and given toy blocks (a neutral stimulus) to play with.

Presentations were then made of:

  • A seal fur coat
  • Cotton wool
  • Watson’s hair
  • A Santa Claus mask. 

Session Four:  To see how time had affected the response, Albert was presented with the rat on its own five days later.

The dog and rabbit were also presented, and the steel bar was hit each time.

Albert was then taken to a well-lit lecture theatre to see if the response was the same as it was in the small room used up till now.

Session Five:  One month later Albert was tested with various stimuli. These included the Santa Claus mask, the fur coat, the rat, the rabbit and the dog.

Session One:   The first time the steel bar was struck when Albert touched the rat, he jumped and fell forward.

The second time he began to whimper.

Session Two:  After five paired presentations in Session 2, Albert reacted to the rat alone by immediately crying, turning to the left and crawling quickly away from the rat.

Session Three: After each presentation of the blocks, Albert played with them happily.

The other stimuli produced negative responses of crying, moving away from the stimulus and crawling away.

Albert showed less negativity towards the cotton wool.

Session Four:  The fear response to the dog, rat and rabbit were pronounced, with crying and crawling away from the objects.

In the different room the fear reaction was slight, until the bar was hit. Then the fear reaction increased .

Session Five:  Albert continued to show fear reactions.

Unfortunately Albert was taken out of the hospital on the day of Session five. After session five Watson and Rayner had planned to attempt to decondition Little Albert’s fear. 

Watson and Rayner were never able to carry out their aim of trying to find ways of removing a phobia in the laboratory.

Session One:  A fear response had been conditioned.

Session Two:  The conditioning of a fear response was evident and so it is possible to condition fear through classical conditioning.

Session Three:  Transference of the fear had been made to other similar objects.

Session Four:  At the start of the session, time had slightly weakened the fear response.

‘Freshening up’ the fear response by presenting the rat, dog and rabbit along with the noise, increased the fear reaction.

Session Five:  Time had not removed the fear response.

Watson and Rayner (1920) Evaluation

– Ethics – the ethical considerations are one of the biggest issues for this study – Little Albert was not protected from harm, this is especially the case because Watson and Rayner did not have the opportunity to decondition Little Albert’s fears.

+ Validity as there was no control group, we cannot be sure that the conditioning caused the fear, for example it could merely have been repeated exposure to a strange animal and subsequent similar items.

– Reliability – because there was only a single participant we cannot say that the results are reliable.

+ Usefulness – this study is useful in understanding the development of fears, especially irrational fears. However, as the study did not decondition the fears as intended, we cannot know from this study if it is possible to decondition fears which would be more useful.

Watson, John B., and Rosalie Rayner. “Conditioned emotional reactions.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 3.1 (1920): 1.

Further Reading

4 thoughts on “ watson and rayner (1920) little albert – behavioural ”.

any referencing details? Year published? Publisher?

Watson, J. B. and Rayner, R. (1920) ‘Conditioned emotional reaction’, Journal of Experimental Psychology 3 , 1–14

The year is wrong, it was conducted in 1928.

Incorrect. The study was reported in 1920. Watson, J. B. and Rayner, R. (1920) ‘Conditioned emotional reaction’, Journal of Experimental Psychology 3, 1–14

Comments are closed.

Psychologized

Psychology is Everywhere...

The Little Albert Experiment

Little Albert was the fictitious name  given to an unknown child who was  subjected to an experiment in classical conditioning by John Watson and Rosalie Raynor at John Hopkins University in the USA, in 1919. By today’s standards in psychology, the experiment would not be allowed because of ethical violations, namely the lack of informed consent from the subject or his parents and the prime principle of “do no harm”.  The experimental method contained significant weaknesses including failure to develop adequate control conditions and the fact that there was only one subject.  Despite the many short comings of the work, the results of the experiment are widely quoted in a range of psychology texts and also were a starting point for understanding phobias and the development of treatments for them.

What happened to Little Albert as he was known is unknown and several psychologists have tried in vain to definitively answer the question of: “what happened to Little Albert?”

What is classical conditioning?

Classical Conditioning Explained

Classical Conditioning Explained

Classical conditioning is a type of behaviourism first demonstrated by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the 1890s.Through a series of experiments he demonstrated that dogs which normally salivated when presented with food could be conditioned to salivate in response to any stimulus in the absence of the original stimulus, food.  He rang a bell every time a dog was about to be fed, and after a period of time the dog would salivate to the sound of the bell irrespective of food being presented.

What did Watson do to Little Albert?

Many people have illogical fears of animals.  While it is logical to be frightened of a predator with the power to kill you, being afraid of a spider, a mouse or even cats and most dogs is not.  To those of us who don’t suffer from phobias it is the funniest thing in the world to see a person standing on a stool, screaming because of a mouse.  Phobias however are real, and for some people quite limiting and potentially damaging. Imagine suffering from agoraphobia – fear of open spaces or even being afraid of going to the dentist to the extent that your health suffered.

Now,  while we know now that phobias can be learned from watching others who have a fear,  for example our mother being afraid of spiders, known as social learning, Watson used the tools and knowledge he had available to him to investigate the potential causes of them ultimately, one supposes, to develop treatments for phobias.

John Watson endeavoured to repeat classical conditioning on a young emotionally stable child, with the objective of inducing phobias in the child. He was interested in trying to understand how children become afraid of animals.

Harris (1979) suggested:  ‘Watson hypothesized that although infants do not naturally fear animals, if “one animal succeeds in arousing fear, any moving furry animal thereafter may arouse it”

Albert was 9 months old and taken from a hospital, subjected to a series of baseline tests and then a series of experiences to ‘condition’ him. Watson filmed his study on Little Albert and the recordings are accessible on Youtube.com.

A series of unethical experiments was conducted with Little Albert

A series of unethical experiments was conducted with Little Albert

Watson started by introducing Albert to a number of furry animals, including a dog, a rabbit and most importantly a white rat. Watson then made loud, unpleasant noises by clanging a metal bar with a hammer.  The noise distressed Albert.  Watson then paired the loud noise with the presentation of the rat to Albert. He repeated this many times.  Very quickly Albert was conditioned to expect the frightening noise whenever the white rat was presented to him. Very soon the white rate alone could induce a fear response in Albert.  What was interesting was that without need for further conditioning the fear was generalised to other animals and situations including a dog, rabbit and a white furry mask worn by Watson himself.

Watson and Raynor  who knew all along the timescale by when Albert had to be returned to his mother,  gave him back without informing her of the activities and conditioning that they had inflicted on Albert, and most worryingly not  taking the time to counter condition or ‘curing’ him of the phobia they had induced.

What were the problems with this the way this study was done?

Both the American Psychological Association (APA) and the British Psychological Society (BPS) have well developed codes of ethics which any practicing psychologists have to adhere to. In addition, all places of higher learning and research have ethical committees to which research proposals have to be submitted for consideration. The core concern is to focus on the quality of research, the professional competence of the researchers and of greatest importance, the welfare of human and animal subjects. At the time of Watson and Raynor’s work, there were no such guidelines and committee.  While to some extent, it is wrong to measure historical research by modern-day standards, this experiment is almost a case study in unethical research. The experiment broke the cardinal ethical rules for psychological research. Those being:

  • Do no harm .  Psychologists have to reduce or eliminate the potential that taking part in a study may cause harm to a participant during and afterwards. Little Albert was harmed during and would potentially have suffered life-long harm as a result.
  • The participants’ right to withdraw.  Nowadays, if you are involved as participant in any psychological or medical study you are given the right that you can withdraw at any stage during the study without consequence to you. Albert and his mother were given no-such rights.
  • The principle of informed consent.  Subjects have to be given as much information about the study as possible before the study begins so that they can make a decision about participating based on knowledge.  If the research is such that giving information before the study may affect the outcome then an alternative is a thorough debrief at its conclusion.  Neither of these conditions was satisfied by Watson’s treatment of Albert.
  • Professional competence of the researcher.  While it may seem presumptive to question the behaviour of the father of “behavioural psychology”, the method used in this study was not particularly good psychology.  There was only one subject and the experiment lacks any form of control.  Such criticism however, is a little post hoc since research in psychology at that time was in its infancy.

Besides the ethical issues with the experiment, as can be seen from the recordings, the environment was not controlled, the animals changed, and several appeared themselves to be in distress. The final act of Watson applying a mask was presented very closely to Albert, something that potentially would cause any child distress.

Watson could have ‘cured’ Albert of the phobia he had induced using a process known as systematic desensitisation but chose not to as he and Raynor wanted to continue with the experiment until the Albert’s mother came to collect him.

Watch a Recap of this experiment in this video:

Harris B (1979): Whatever happened to Little Albert ?  American Psychologist, February 1979,     pp 151-160

Code of Ethics:

http://www.bps.org.uk/what-we-do/ethics-standards/ethics-standards

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Wow, this entire article is full of inaccuracies. Firstly, they didn’t begin the conditioning experiments on Albert until he was 11 months and 3 days old. While the first few original reactions with the different animals did not need further conditioning, the steel rod was struck several times throughout the experiment to reinstate the fear response with the stimuli. Also, it is only speculated that Albert’s mother was unaware that these experiments were going on. You mention that the mask in which Watson wears at the ending of the video would distress any child, but before beginning the experiments, Watson and his crew tested several different stimuli on Albert and marked any emotional responses. The masks were part of this test and did not originally trigger a response. A fear response was present after Albert was conditioned to fear the white rat and things that were visually similar. The mask had white hair attached at the top. He had a similiar response to a paper bag of white cotton wool. Lastly, the fact that your entire article is written with a secondary source (written in 1979 no less) as your only source beside the video, and never even refers to Watson’s original journal publication (which is available for free online at http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Watson/emotion.htm ) is even more of a reason to find this article flawed.

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The Undergraduate Neuroscience Journal

Ethical history: a contemporary examination of the little albert experiment, sehar bokhari.

Read more posts by this author.

Micaela Bartunek

Sehar bokhari , micaela bartunek.

In 1917, two curious researchers looking to examine the effects of fear conditioning began a study at Johns Hopkins University that would later become one of the most controversial experiments in the field. John Watson and Rosalie Rayner sought to test the limits of fear conditioning by recruiting a small child to partake in their study. The nine month old infant, known simply as "Little Albert B," was selected for his developmental and emotional stability at such a young age [1]. Watson's Little Albert study, taught in countless Introduction to Psychology courses, helps to further illustrate the idea of classical conditioning most notably explained by Ivan Pavlov. However, what many courses fail to explore is the issue of ethics behind experiments like Watson's, and the effects studies like it have on the subsequent behavior and development of their participants. As a result of studies such as Watson's, universities have created Institutional Review Boards, ethical boards that seek to ensure humane practices and protect human life while concurrently advancing knowledge in research. Understanding Watson's Little Albert study not only illuminates an interesting aspect of behavioral psychology, but also brings up interesting questions about research ethics in studies involving human participants.

The Mechanics of Fear Conditioning

Watson's research centered around Albert's interactions with a variety of animals including white rabbits and mice. Watson and Rayner noted that initially, Albert's behavior towards these animals was curious and playful. To condition a fearful response in the child, Watson exposed Albert to each animal while simultaneously producing a loud, frightening noise by slamming a large hammer into a long metal pipe. At first, Albert reacted by withdrawing from the animal. Then his lips began to tremble. Upon the third blow, Albert began to cry and shake violently. It was the first time Albert exhibited any sort of fear repsonse within the study. It certainly wouldn't be the last [1].

Days later, Albert was presented with the same animals as previously described, only this time without any noise. Albert immediately withdrew from them, now fearing the animals themselves. Watson and Rayner had successfully taught a nine-month old child to fear something he initially loved, through interaction and classical conditioning [1].

Fear Generalization

As the study progressed, Watson questioned whether Albert's fear conditioning could be applied to other objects and animals similar in nature to a white rabbit. Albert was presented with a wool coat, a small dog, and even a Santa Claus mask with a beard fashioned out of cotton balls. Albert now exhibited signs of generalization–a phenomenon in which the original stimulus is not the only stimulus that elicits fear from the participant. In Albert's case, objects that looked visually similar to the objects he was originally conditioned to fear also elicited the same response–despite the fact that these objects were not conditioned in the first phase of the study.

Watson and Rayner concluded that Albert's conditioned fear response persisted for approximately one month. As Albert's fears spread, however, his mother abruptly removed him from the study. Because of his immediate and sudden departure, Watson and Rayner were never able to reverse the effects of Albert's fear conditioning through a process known as desensitization [1].

Desensitization utilizes a series of relaxation and imagination techniques in order to reverse the effects of fear conditioning [2]. If properly performed, extinction occurs when the subject is repeatedly exposed to the conditioned stimulus without the fear-conditioning stimulus--in Albert's case, the loud sound. Over time, the participant's fear fades due to repeated exposure to the conditioned stimulus without the negative consequence. The participant then substitutes the initial fear with that of a normal response [3]. However, new research on desensitization raises questions as to whether it fully reverses the effects of fear conditioning. Research suggests that even if desensitization works, it may not necessarily last, so the participant runs the risk of relapse [9]. Unfortunately, Albert was never even exposed to these methods, and as such, many have wondered what effects this study and lack of desensitization may have had throughout Albert's lifetime.

the little albert case study

The Mystery of a Lifetime

Johns Hopkins University became the focus of the search for Albert. Watson left behind little evidence to suggest Little Albert's whereabouts following the study, though he did leave Albert's estimated date of birth, age at the same time of their research, and a grain film that documented the entirety of the study. One researcher, Hall Beck from Appalachian State University in North Carolina, was the first to provide an answer.

Beck used Albert's history to track down, a nurse at Johns Hopkins University's Hospital that he suspected to be Albert's mother. Beck discovered that the nurse had a son named Douglas Merrite who fit the proper description of Albert during the time of the study [4]. Merritte pased away at age six due to hydrocephamus that initiate the fear response. These responses are regulated by the nervous system which creates a startle response and simultaneously increase a person's heart rate, respiration rate, or blood pressure [6].

The human brain is a complicated system of neural structures and pathways, some of the which serve as conduits to fear and learning. These intricate systems in the brain can cause even nine month old children to fear for their lives. Even with desensitization techniques, it is still uncertain just how these sorts of experiments affect human beings. Today, Institutional Review Boards closely monitor modern studies to avoid repeating what happened to Little Albert and ensure that subjects are protected both mentally and physically.

IRBS & Ethics

As with many controversial experiments like Watson's, the question of the ethical boundaries in research is brought to the forefront. Is it morally acceptable to conduct an experiment on an infant? Many suggest that experimenters should find a strict balance between the importance of protecting those who participate in experiments, especially infants, and scientific advancement [7]. Regulations boards, known as Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs) now exist within federally funded research universities in order to protect such balances within proposed research studies [8]. Research proposals must explicitly state and explain the risk and benefits to participants within the study, as well as give participants the right to withdraw at any time if they wish to do so. Proper debriefing following experiments must also take place, ensuring that subjects are fully aware of the purpose of the study and how the experiments will be obtaining their results [2].

Perhaps as time goes on and new findings emerge, IRBs and researchers alike can learn to identify the line beyond which an experiment goes too far. Even if a study is considered ethical and approved by an IRB, it may still be controversial. Examining studies such as Little Albert's allow IRBs to recognize moral dilemmas and adapt their procedures regarding experimental proposals in order to ensure that these ethical complications do not reoccur. It may not be easy, but when an experiment builds itself around a strong ethical foundation, the results of the study, as well as the study itself, are preserved in honesty and integrity. As Dan McArthur, a Professor of Philosophy at York University, puts it, when we protect scientific integrity and respect our participants, "good ethics can sometimes mean better results" [10].

  • Classics in the History of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Watson/emotion.htm
  • Systematic Desensitization | Simply Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/Systematic-Desensitisation.html
  • Hermans, D., Graske, M., Mineka, S., & Lovibond, P. (2006). Extinction in Human Fear Conditioning. Retrieved November 19, 2015, from https://lirias.kuleuven.be/bitstream/123456789/125886/1/24.pdf
  • The Search for Psychology's Lost Boy. (2014, June 1). Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://chronicle.com/interactives/littlealbert
  • Limbic System: Amygdala (Section 4, Chapter 6) Neuroscience Online: An Electronic Textbook for the Neurosciences | Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy - The University of Texas Medical School at Houston. (n.d.). Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/S4/chapter06.html
  • Maren, S. (n.d.). Neurobiology of Pavlovian Fear Conditioning - Annual Review of Neuroscience. Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://www.annualreviews.org.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/doi/full/10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.897
  • Diekema, D. (n.d.). Ethical Issues In Research Involving Infants. Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://www.seminperinat.com/article/S0146-0005(09)00060-3/fulltext
  • Goodwin, C., & Goodwin, A. (1995). Ethics in Psychological Research. In Research in psychology: Methods and design (7th ed., pp. 41-44). New York: Wiley.
  • Vervliet, B., Craske, M. & Hermans, D. (n.d.). Fear Extinction and Relapse: State of the Art. Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://www.annualreviews.org.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-clinp-sy-050212-185542
  • Mcarthur, D. (2009). Good ethics can sometimes mean between science: Research ethics and the milgram experiments. Science and Engineering Ethics, 15(1), 69-79. doi: http://dx.doi.org.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/10.1007/S11948-008-9083-4

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History Defined

The Little Albert Experiment: A Case Study for Unethical Science

Most of us know that infants are highly impressionable. Their brains are like sponges, and their experiences during this formative period can stay with them for years or even decades.

Unfortunately for a little toddler named Albert, the researchers who experimented on him weren’t thinking about long-term damage. 

Instead, they decided to test Albert’s response to a series of non-threatening objects. By the time the experiment had finished, Albert was terrified of all of them. 

Because of its cruelty, the little Albert experiment has become a textbook case of how psychology can go awry when we throw ethics out the window.

the little albert case study

What Was the Little Albert Experiment?

In 1920, psychologists John Watson and Rosalie Rayner wanted to test if humans could be classically conditioned to react negatively to objects that posed no threat. 

This was an extension of Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiment on conditioning responses in dogs. 

In the original experiment, Pavlov would ring a bell just before it was time for the dogs to feed. After doing this repeatedly, the dogs learned to associate the sound of the bell with being fed. 

That is, they were conditioned to associate one stimulus with another. Pavlov found that once he established an association, he could remove one stimulus, the food, and the dogs would still salivate at the sound of a bell as if expecting to be fed. 

Watson and Rayner wanted to see if they could train a human to elicit the same type of response.

Conducting the Experiment

To begin, Watson and Rayner presented Albert with a series of animals. They used fuzzy, innocent-looking animals like a monkey, a rabbit, and a white mouse. 

Albert showed no fear at first and was even curious enough to reach out and pet some of them. 

But in the second phase of the experiment, the researchers would take out a hammer and bang it repeatedly against a metal pipe as Albert interacted with each animal. Once the banging started, Albert’s reaction changed completely. 

With the din of the hammer invading his ears, little Albert began to cry whenever he saw those same fluffy animals, even after the banging had stopped. 

He had learned to associate the loud sound of the hammer with fluffy animals. In fact, he had learned so well that he became afraid of other fluffy things, including a Santa Beard and his own family’s dogs.

Why The Little Albert Experiment Was So Unethical

In the first couple of decades of the 20th century, the ethical guidelines for psychology experiments were different than they are today. 

Today, it’s easy to see that deliberately scaring an infant isn’t exactly responsible science. But Watson and Rayner didn’t seem to appreciate the potential for harm.

For one thing, they noted that the boy they chose, Albert, was “on the whole stolid and unemotional.” Because of his calm demeanor, they believed they “could do him relatively little harm by carrying out such experiments.”

Beyond the ethical issues with the experiment, there were also problems with its design. For one thing, the psychologists failed to use a control subject. 

Nor did they use an objective way of measuring Albert’s reactions. Instead, they watched as the child “burst into tears” or crawled away from the objects and took that as proof that Albert had developed a phobia.

Second, some critics point out that Albert may not have developed a true phobia at all. 

In the experiment, when Albert sucked his thumb, he didn’t show a fear of loud noises. At times, Watson had to try the experiment repeatedly before Albert finally took his thumb out of his mouth and showed the fear response Watson was looking for.

What Happened to Poor Little Albert?

But the main concern critics had of the experiment was that Watson and Rayner did not have a chance to try and reverse the fear response that they had created in Albert. 

His mother withdrew him from the experiment before they could try and undo the potential harm they had caused. This has led many people to wonder what the long-term consequences of the experiment were.

We may never know the answer. It is not clear exactly what became of little Albert after the experiment ended. However, over the years, researchers have tried to track him down and have come up with two leading theories as to the identity of the little boy.

The first theory is that Albert was the son of Arvilla Merritte, a nurse who worked at a pediatric clinic on the same campus where the experiment was conducted. 

If this is the true Albert, then he, unfortunately, did not live for very long. He died at the age of six from hydrocephalus, a condition in which a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain causes damage to the tissues. 

The researchers, one of whom is the grandson of Arvilla Merritte, even found that there are clear facial similarities between photos of little Albert and the boy they believe him to be. 

If this is the case, then at the time of the experiment, little Albert would have been nearly blind due to his condition, which would have both influenced the results and added another layer of dubiousness to the experiment.

Another team of researchers, however, presents a very different story of how Albert’s life unfolded. 

These researchers say that the real infant is Albert Barger, a boy who lived a full and happy life until his passing in 2007. 

The information on Albert Barger is consistent with that of the boy in Watson’s experiment. But, Tellingly, his relatives claimed that Albert Barger even had an aversion to animals.

Which boy is the true little Albert from the experiments? Unfortunately, that answer may never be completely clear. 

But we do know that whoever the little boy was, he should have never been allowed to go through what he experienced in Watson’s lab. 

Watson himself eventually gave up practicing psychology and instead went into advertising.

 Ultimately, he found an industry where his ethical ambiguities might have come in handy.

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  1. The Little Albert Experiment And The Chilling Story Behind It

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COMMENTS

  1. Little Albert Experiment (Watson & Rayner)

    Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc On This Page: Experiment Critical Evaluation Ethical Issues Learning Check Watson and Rayner (1920) conducted the Little Albert Experiment to answer 3 questions: Can an infant be conditioned to fear an animal that appears simultaneously with a loud, fear-arousing sound?

  2. The Little Albert Experiment

    The Little Albert experiment was a famous psychology experiment conducted by behaviorist John B. Watson and graduate student Rosalie Rayner. Previously, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov had conducted experiments demonstrating the conditioning process in dogs.

  3. The Little Albert Experiment

    The Little Albert Experiment was a study conducted by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner in 1920, where they conditioned a 9-month-old infant named "Albert" to fear a white rat by pairing it with a loud noise. Albert later showed fear responses to the rat and other similar stimuli.

  4. Little Albert experiment

    The Little Albert experiment was a study that mid-20th century psychologists interpret as evidence of classical conditioning in humans. The study is also claimed to be an example of stimulus generalization although reading the research report shows that fear did not generalize by color or tactile qualities. [1]

  5. The Little Albert Experiment And The Chilling Story Behind It

    Published October 13, 2022 In 1920, the two psychologists behind the Little Albert Experiment performed a study on a nine-month-old baby to determine if classical conditioning worked on humans — and made him terrified of harmless objects in the process.

  6. Mystery solved: We now know what happened to Little Albert

    "Little Albert," the baby behind John Watson's famous 1920 emotional conditioning experiment at Johns Hopkins University, has been identified as Douglas Merritte, the son of a wetnurse named Arvilla Merritte who lived and worked at a campus hospital at the time of the experiment — receiving $1 for her baby's participation.

  7. The Little Albert Experiment (Summary)

    The Little Albert Experiment is a famous psychology study on the effects of behavioral conditioning. Conducted by John B. Watson and his assistant, graduate student, Rosalie Raynor, the experiment used the results from research carried out on dogs by Ivan Pavlov — and took it one step further.

  8. The Little Albert Experiment

    Theodore T October 13, 2022 The Little Albert Experiment is a world-famous study in the worlds of both behaviorism and general psychology. Its fame doesn't just come from astounding findings. The story of the Little Albert experiment is mysterious, dramatic, dark, and controversial.

  9. Looking back: Finding Little Albert

    In the winter of 1919/20, Watson and his graduate assistant, Rosalie Alberta Rayner, attempted to condition a baby boy, Albert B., to fear a white laboratory rat (Watson & Rayner, 1920). They later reported that the child's fear generalised to other furry objects.

  10. Was 'Little Albert' ill during the famed conditioning study?

    New evidence suggests that the baby boy known as Little Albert—the subject of John B. Watson's and Rosalie Rayner's famous 1920 emotion-conditioning investigation at Johns Hopkins University—may not have been the "healthy," "normal" boy Watson touted, but a neurologically impaired child who suffered from congenital hydrocephalus.

  11. Little Albert Experiment

    Definition: The Little Albert Experiment was a psychological study conducted by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner in 1920. The experiment aimed to demonstrate classical conditioning, a form of associative learning, in humans. The researchers sought to show that a child could be conditioned…

  12. The Shocking Truth Behind the Little Albert Experiment: How One Study

    The Little Albert Experiment is a fascinating and controversial case study that has significantly impacted the field of psychology. While the methods used in the experiment are no longer considered acceptable, the findings have helped to advance our understanding of how humans learn and develop emotional responses to stimuli.

  13. GoodTherapy

    The Little Albert Experiment demonstrated that classical conditioning —the association of a particular stimulus or behavior with an unrelated stimulus or behavior—works in human beings. In this...

  14. PDF Finding Little Albert: A Journey to John B. Watson's Infant Laboratory

    Much of the attention the study has received has centered upon Albert. Without having been deconditioned, Albert moved from his home on the Johns Hopkins University campus, creating one of the greatest mysteries in the history of psychology. "Whatever happened to Little Albert?" is a question that has intrigued generations

  15. Watson and Rayner (1920) Little Albert

    A case study using classical conditioning undertaken on one boy: 'Little Albert'. Little Albert was a pseudonym given to protect the identity of the child. Participants. One participant. Little Albert, prior to the study there was nothing abnormal about Little Albert, in fact he was quite normal and had no fears, which is why he was selected.

  16. The Little Albert Experiment

    A series of unethical experiments was conducted with Little Albert Watson started by introducing Albert to a number of furry animals, including a dog, a rabbit and most importantly a white rat. Watson then made loud, unpleasant noises by clanging a metal bar with a hammer. The noise distressed Albert.

  17. Little Albert

    Children, young people and families, Developmental, Research, Research Ethics Little Albert - one of the most famous research participants in psychology's history - but who was he? In 1920 a pair of researchers at Johns Hopkins University taught a little baby boy to fear a white rat. 09 October 2014 By Christian Jarrett

  18. The Little Albert Experiment

    This is a breakdown of the famous 'Little Albert' Psychology Experiment by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner using Classical Conditioning to instil a new fear in a mentally stable child,...

  19. The Little Albert controversy: Intuition, confirmation bias, and logic

    The search for Little Albert suggests 2 persistent issues: (a) confirmation bias and (b) that overconfidence in a belief detracts from reasoning because logical errors are intuitive and seem reasonable. ... This article uses the recent controversy about Little Albert's identity as an example of a fine case study of problems that can befall ...

  20. John Watson's Little Albert Experiment

    Little Albert was a 9-month-old participant in Watson's experiment that showed that classical conditioning is possible in humans. He learned to fear white rats and other white and fluffy...

  21. Ethical History: A Contemporary Examination of the Little Albert Experiment

    Watson's Little Albert study, taught in countless Introduction to Psychology courses, helps to further illustrate the idea of classical conditioning most notably explained by Ivan Pavlov. ... In Albert's case, objects that looked visually similar to the objects he was originally conditioned to fear also elicited the same response-despite the ...

  22. PDF Clinical Psychology

    The study can be viewed as the very first laboratory demonstration of conditioned emotional responses in humans. The 'Little Albert' study is a classic in psychology textbooks and is often cited as the foundation on which the domain of the experimental study of psychopathology has been built.

  23. The Little Albert Experiment and Unethical Science

    The Little Albert Experiment: A Case Study for Unethical Science. Most of us know that infants are highly impressionable. Their brains are like sponges, and their experiences during this formative period can stay with them for years or even decades. Unfortunately for a little toddler named Albert, the researchers who experimented on him weren ...