“The Little Albert Experiment”
After many months observing young children, John Hopkins University psychologist Dr. John B. Watson concluded that infants could be conditioned to be scared of non-threatening objects or stimuli. All he needed was first-hand proof. Since it was 1919 and experimental ethics were nowhere near as strict as they are today, Watson, along with his graduate student Rosalie Rayner, set about designing an experiment to test their theory. Thanks to their connections at the Baltimore hospital, they were able to find a young baby, named ‘Albert’, and ‘borrow’ him for the afternoon. While Albert’s mother might have consented to her son helping out scientific research, she had no idea what Watson was actually planning.
The young Albert was just nine months old when he was taken from a hospital and put to work as Watson’s guinea pig. At first, Watson carried out a series of baseline tests, to see that the child was indeed emotionally stable and at the accepted stage of development. But then the tests got creepier. Albert was shown several furry animals. These included a dog, a white rat and a rabbit. Watson would show these toys to Albert while at the same time banging a hammer against a metal bar. This was repeated a number of times. Before long, Albert was associating the sight of the furry animals with the fear provoked by the loud, unpleasant noise. Indeed, within just a short space of time, just seeing the furry rat could distress the child.
Watson noted at the time: “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 scientist and his research partner had achieved their goal: they had proof that, just as in animals, classical conditioning can be used to influence or even dictate emotional responses in humans. Watson published his findings the following year, in the prestigious Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Even at the time, Watson’s methods were seen as unethical. After all, isn’t a doctor supposed to ‘do no harm’? What’s more, Watson never worked with Little Albert again, so he wasn’t able to reverse the process. But still, the results were heralded as a breakthrough in our understanding of popular psychology. Notably, Watson recorded the Little Albert Experiment, and the videos can be seen online today. And, for what it’s worth, most experts now agree that, though he would have most likely feared furry objects for a short spell of time during his childhood, Little Albert probably lost the association between cute toys and loud noises.