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Little Albert Experiment
Professor Dr. Alexandra Martin / Psychologie
Photo: UniService Transfer

The Little Albert Experiment: One of the most widely cited early experiments in the human field

A Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with the psychologist Prof. Dr. Alexandra Martin.

The American psychologist John B. Watson is considered the founder of behaviorism. He made headlines in 1920 with the so-called Little Albert Experiment. It is one of the most famous studies in psychology. What was this experiment about?

Martin: Watson wanted to prove that emotional reactions are trained and differentiated through learning experience and that these learning experiences are based on so-called classical conditioning. His original idea was that all possible emotional reactions could be trained, conditioned and developed in response to all possible stimuli. And then he did this research at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in which was also a infant ward. There was a child there, the so-called "Little Albert", who grew up there for the first nine months. It is a case experiment, on exactly one child, an infant. Watson observed it for over several months and then subjected it to an experiment. First, he took a survey by studying the emotional reactions of the child in everyday life. He discovered that "Little Albert" was an extremely resilient, quiet - he even describes it as a stoic, inconspicuous child. He developed the conditioning knowledge, which at that time had rather been gained from animal experiments according to Pawlow, further and adjusted it towards the child. In the first phase of observation he confronted Albert with all kinds of things which, as expected, do not cause fear. These included a white rat, a rabbit, a fur, a burning newspaper and a mask. And indeed, the child behaved rather neutrally in response or sometimes even showed a curious approach reaction. In the second phase, he first tested the emotional reactions with the help of an unconditioned stimulus that provoked a fear reaction. We know that there are certain stimuli that would cause a frightening reaction in almost any person, e.g. a loud noise or a loud blow. These are unconditioned stimuli that lead to physiological or emotional reactions. This is exactly what he then tested on the child. In this case it was a stroke with a hammer on an iron bar. From the warping of the mouth at the beginning to the strong crying after several passes. He also wanted to test how the conditioned reaction is transferred to other stimuli, i.e. generalized. A transfer to other stimuli that show parallels with the original stimulus. So first a rat, then a fur, and then so on conjugated up until the child also showed terror in front of his Santa Claus mask with beard, which had been a neutral stimulus until then. The child developed these typical fear reactions to all these neutral stimuli. In this respect, it is one of the most cited early experiments  in the human field, showing that there is a conditioned emotional response.

What did Watson want to achieve?

Martin: You have to make a distinction between what he wanted to achieve and what the basic models of fear research are. Watson wanted to show that emotional reactions can be induced by this coupling of a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus, which, according to his unverified assumption, are of great range, i.e. have a long effect on personality development. The assumption was that such targeted early learning experiences would contribute to personality development. Today, when we speak of classical conditioning, we know that these reactions to certain learned triggers will eventually subside unless further circumstances contribute to maintaining the learned response.

From John B. Watson is the quote: "Give me the baby and my world so I can bring it up, and I will make it crawl and let it walk. I will make it climb and I will make use of its hands to build buildings of stone or wood. I will make a thief, a shooter or a drug junkie out of him. The possibility to form in any direction is almost unlimited." Is he right about that?

Martin: The quote certainly fits in with the intention he had with this experiment, the idea that the young child comes into the world like a kind of tabula rasa and that personality development, the association that he might become a thief or drug junkie, is subject to early learning experiences. One could also think further and say that upbringing influences also have such serious effects on personality development. This quote is quite often used, but is often taken out of context. Watson himself added - he goes beyond the proven knowledge - that it is an assumption. Perhaps he also wanted to polarize in order to make a position clear. He was strongly convinced, and this can be seen in later works on upbringing issues, that it is very important what continuous experiences a child has in this early childhood development, and that personality and behavior are very strongly influenced by that.

For some a milestone in behavioral research, for others a methodologically and morally questionable attempt. How do scientists assess the experiment today?

Martin: A simple answer would be that it can be described as an individual case or an isolated experiment.
There are many questions about the methodological procedure in psychological experiments according to today's concepts, because we also create control conditions. The research structure would certainly be different in the 21st century. With today's understanding, a different ethical attitude has also been formed. Therefore, an experiment of this kind would be extremely questionable from an ethical point of view today. There are so many aspects. Is it even ethically justifiable to condition an emotional reaction? Yes, one could say that is still ethically justifiable, if certain conditions are met. But there is a special feature here. We have a very young child who participated in a test setup for several weeks with the risk that this will have long-term effects on the child's development. At that time we did not have the consent of a parent or legal guardian. Research has been done from a different view on humanity and there are extreme achievements in the last 50 years. Not only Watson, but also other human studies in medicine and psychology have led to a critical examination of the conditions under which people participate in experiments. Today, for example, we have standards, always weighing up the benefits and risks of a research project, according to which we have to make decisions about the structure of investigations. Today, people must be fully informed about the questions, procedures and risks of the research project so that they can give their informed consent. And that is only one aspect.

In a second phase of the experiment, Watson wanted to decondition the infant's fears. For what reasons did this no longer work?


Martin: It is interesting that Watson had noticed that the child still showed this fear reaction over several weeks, and that he himself should plan a phase in which one should make sure that there is a potential for relearning. He had already assumed that the intensity of the fear reactions would subside and had already observed this partly.  But he also said that if this did not happen - and this is certainly an ethical consideration - he would have to think of a way to decondition in order to undo this learning experience, to turn it around or to learn something new. And then he also describes in his article that unfortunately the so-called "Albert" was taken out of the hospital after the last attempt, so that he no longer had the opportunity to apply this deconditioning or a new learning experience.

The American Psychologist Hall Beck later wanted to know what happened to "Little Albert", whom he identified as Douglas Merritte after a long research. What did he find out?

Martin: Today in research we would not be able to reveal the identity of a test person. Within a research context there might be possibilities, but outside in a publication it is not uncommon to use pseudonyms, therefore "so-called" Little Albert. At that time, however, it was actually not mandatory to use a pseudonym. This raised the question, 'Who was this child?' Then one tried to find out what became of him and who he was. The psychologist Hall Beck, together with colleagues, researched which nurses were working in the hospital at that time and might be possible mothers of Little Albert. The fact that the mother was an infant nurse at the "Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children" can be found in the original publication. During the 1919 investigation period, there were potentially three women, of whom one African American could be excluded because Albert was a white child. Two other mothers stayed: Pearl Barger and Arvilla Merritte. The scientists finally focused on Arvilla Merritte, as she had given birth to a son in March 1919. This was consistent with the age information and the calculated period of time in Watson's article. After further research they doubted that the child was as healthy as Watson had described in his behavioral observation. They then postulated, with the participation of a neurologist, that the child could not have been healthy at all. On the basis of the film footage, which still exists and can be viewed, they believed that the child must have had a neurological disorder. They recognized this from the way he moved or from the way his body dynamics acted. The medical records which they found also allowed this conclusion to be drawn. They then reclaimed that Watson had intentionally withheld information or had not presented it correctly. The psychology professor Russell Powell from the University of Edmonton, in turn, could not see any signs of neurological abnormality in the films. He then informed himself about the second potential mother, Pearl Barger. She had three children and the oldest child even had the middle name Albert. He found out, through descendants, that the named Albert was afraid of dogs. Even if this had been the case, it would not be a compelling proof for the participation or effect of the experiments. In the end, we do not know until today. It could also have been a completely different child. The mystery remains.

Uwe Blass (Interview on09.07.2020)


Prof. Dr. Alexandra Martin is an university professor for clinical psychology and psychotherapy at the University of Wuppertal and directs the Psychotherapeutic University Outpatient Clinic.