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.

Little Albert Experiment

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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