Little Albert Experiment: The Most Distorted Study Ever
Among all psychological studies, the
URL is below), conducted by Dr. John B. Watson, APA (American Psychological
Association) President, and Rosalie Rayner in 1920, is the most widely
cited experiment in psychological textbooks. It is likely the most
distorted and misrepresented psychological study as well, with numerous
small and large mistakes found in general textbooks and more
professional books written by prominent psychotherapists and leading
psychology theorists. Dr. Ben Harris summarized some of these
distortions in his article Whatever Happened to Little Albert?
(B. Harris, 1979) published in the American Psychologist. He
simply appealed to stick to facts as one may guess from the title.
The total number of published distortions can be measured by
hundreds. What are their possible psychological causes? Why do most
authors try to confuse their readers? Which real problems were and are
still hidden in this study?
While various details of the Little Albert experiment are
scrupulously investigated, no study of authors’ motivation was so far
provided. What were the driving forces and reasons behind this
monumental psychological experiment?
Scientists, as well as school pupils, are driven by their passion to
find truth and solve certain problems. So called problem solving skills
are among the key parameters of any person. Finding solutions to
problems, after a long search, is a cherished and exceptionally positive
experience that serves as a driving force virtually for all
truth-seekers. This observation also indicates that there is a certain
element of pleasure (tension release?) in finding solutions. Then, when
a certain fundamental problem is solved, the solution should bring
relief not only to the authors but also for people who experience many
other, related problems.
The original problem in the Little Albert experiment
Let us start the analysis with this simple question. What was the
problem with little Albert at 9 to 11 months of age during the
experiment? Before the study,
“He was on the whole stolid and unemotional…the infant was
confronted suddenly and for the first time successively with a white
rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, with masks with and without hair,
cotton wool, burning newspapers, etc… Manipulation was the most usual
reaction called out. At no time did this infant ever show fear in
any situation. These experimental records were confirmed by the
casual observations of the mother and hospital attendants. No one had
ever seen him in a state of fear and rage. The infant practically never
cried” (Watson & Rayner, 1920).
Albert’s personal problem was brilliantly solved by the
President of American Psychological Association and his assistant. How?
Albert developed lasting fear in relation to the rat, the rabbit, the
dog, and the sealskin coat; a "negative" response to the mask and
Watson's hair; and a mild response to the cotton. This amazing
accomplishment was achieved by producing a loud sound behind Albert's
back by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer when the baby
touched the rat or, later, noticed it.
The previously “boring” life of little Albert, who was an explorer,
investigator, inventor, challenger, and discoverer (whatever we was
confronted with, suddenly and for the first time, animals, masks with
and without hair, and even burning newspapers, “manipulation was the
most usual reaction called out”), after several conditionings, was
enriched by the following new and fascinating responses:
“- jumped violently and fell forward, burying his face in the
- fell to right side and rested upon hands, with head turned away
- puckered face, whimpered and withdrew body sharply to the left;
- fell over immediately to right side and began to whimper;
- began to cry;
- turned sharply to the left, fell over on 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;
- whimpered immediately, withdrew right hand and turned head and
- leaned over to the left side as far away from the rat as
possible, then fell over, getting up on all fours and scurrying away as
rapidly as possible…” (Watson & Rayner, 1920).
Although Watson and Rayner knew one month in advance that Albert
would be taken from the hospital, no de-conditioning was planned or
Which other problems of Little Albert were solved during this experiment?
Dozens of psychology textbooks claim that in the Little Albert study
the authors tried to answer 3 questions: (1) Can an infant be
conditioned to fear an animal that appears simultaneously with a loud,
fear-arousing sound? (2) Would such fear transfer to other animals or
to inanimate objects? (3) How long would such fears persist?
(see e.g.: B. Harris, 1979).
Furthermore, as textbooks on psychology and more professional
psychology books claim and assume, there were no other effects. (If
there were some, the textbooks would definitely describe them.)
Would such an infant be also conditioned to accompanied smells,
sounds, colors, weather, buildings, room shapes, objects that
attracted his attention, people met before and after, clothes he wore,
foods he ate, etc.? Obviously, yes. In my view, there is no such thing
as “The infant was conditioned to fear furry objects” and nothing else
Moreover, even Albert’s relationship with the mother should be
affected. How to check that? Imagine a study with the following design.
Choose 200 solid unemotional infants, with no fear at all (“No one
had ever seen them in a state of fear and rage, the infants practically
never cried”, as in the 1920 study). Divide these cool explorers on 2
groups. Send 100 of them to experience the same that Albert got. Then
compare these experimental infants with the control group who were in
the crap-free environment. Later measure their eye contact with their
mothers, proximity, somatic changes (heart rate, blood pressure,
galvanic skin response, etc.) before and after the experiments. What
would be logical to expect?
If you are not convinced about the reality of the impact, think
again about previously absolutely composed never-crying infants
(discoverers and creators) who in the lab are to experience the
following reactions for the first time in their lives:
“- the reaction was pronounced. Negative responses began at once.
He leaned as far away from the animal as possible, whimpered, then
burst into tears. When the rabbit was placed in contact with him he
buried his face in the mattress, then got up on all fours and crawled
away, crying as he went. This was a most convincing test.
- straightened up immediately, fell over to the opposite side and
turned his head away. He then began to cry.
- withdrew immediately to the left side and began to fret. Coat put
close to him on the left side, he turned immediately, began to cry and
tried to crawl away on all fours.
- fell over to left side, got up on all fours and started to
crawl away. On this occasion there was no crying, but strange to say,
as he started away he began to gurgle and coo, even while leaning far
over to the left side to avoid the rat.
- began to whimper, shaking head from side to side, holding hands
as far away from the animal as possible.
- a violent negative reaction appeared. He began to whimper, turned to
one side, fell over and started to get up on all fours.
- turned away but did not fall over. Cried. Hands moved as far
away from the animal as possible. Whimpered as long as the dog was
present” (Watson & Rayner, 1920).
Furthermore, measure and compare the sleep and digestion parameters of
100 experimental and 100 control infants before and after the
experiment. What would be logical to expect here?
As these infants grow up, one may continue measuring the somatic
responses of experimental subjects by reading neutral words and words,
which could associate with the study (names of the people involved,
the building, lab, street, university, city, state, etc.). Has anybody heard or
seen people who run away from the city, state, or country that they lived in for
years or decades only because of some unresolved issue or
The development of chronic conditions (diseases) can also be measured
years later. Would Dr. Watson contribute in this area too?
Hence, there were many other of Albert’s problems which were
successfully solved during this study. Indeed, it would be silly to
expect that the new emotional reactions (crying, cooing, whimpering,
sobbing, gurgling, running away, etc.) were exclusively confined to the
walls of the laboratory, when seeing rats, rabbits, dogs, etc. and only
on emotional level with no any generalization related to the Little Albert study.
What was the likely real-life reason why the mother of Little Albert
took him away from the “scientists” before the completion of the study?
What was the general outcome of the study?
What did Albert acquire, as a result of this experiment? If
previously he could successfully deal with various stressful objects
and animals, after the study this ability disappeared. Hence, the study
affected his ability to cope with stress and this is the central
parameter that defines, according to numerous dictionaries,
psychological trauma. Therefore, little Albert got a psychological
How can the activities of the authors be defined?
Dr. Watson obviously had numerous choices of which types of studies to
conduct. He was not forced to scare the infant. He was driven, as any
scientist, by the well-known pleasure principle. Where did he find this
Again, he took a cool and composed infant (“No one had ever seen him
in a state of fear and rage”) and generated the following reactions
(these are again the phrases, different ones, from the original Watson
and Rainer's study),
“Whimpered with arms held high, fell over backward and had to be
Santa Claus mask. Withdrawal, gurgling, then slapped at it without
touching. When his hand was forced to touch it, he whimpered and cried.
His hand was forced to touch it two more times. He whimpered and cried
on both tests. He finally cried at the mere visual stimulus of the
Fur coat. Wrinkled his nose and withdrew both hands, drew back his
whole body and began to whimper as the coat was put nearer. Again there
was the strife between withdrawal and the tendency to manipulate.
Reached tentatively with left hand but drew back before contact had
been made. In moving his body to one side his hand accidentally touched
the coat. He began to cry at once, nodding his head in a very peculiar
manner (this reaction was an entirely new one).
The rat was then allowed to crawl against his chest. He first
began to fret and then covered his eyes with both hands...
Dog. The dog was very active. Albert fixated it intensely for a few
seconds, sitting very still. He began to cry” (Watson & Rayner,
We can infer from these reactions, that Dr. Watson, the leader of
the study, derived pleasure by producing fear or inflicting cruelty on
the previously fear-free infant. Many popular dictionaries say that
sadism is pleasure derived from inflicting cruelty on another person.
It is not important that Dr. Watson was the President of the APA. He
could be a super Honorable President of whatever organization; he could
have support and encouragement of hundreds of other Presidents; he
could have ultra rewards and medals of many other organization and
universities. None of these facts change the nature of what was
practically done and how it should be labeled.
Note that I do not claim that Dr. Watson was a pathological sadist.
Four years later, with Dr. Watson’s advice, Mary Cover Jones, his
associate, desensitized a three-year-old boy who was scared of rabbits.
She paired the rabbit with a pleasurable activity and the child’s
fear gradually disappeared (Jones, 1924).
Which of Dr. Watson's problems were solved
Coming back to the question, “Which problems did this study solve?”,
clearly, Albert’s behavior and reactions were reasonable and the avoidance
of sudden and loud noises, which would scare any adult as well, was a
sensible response. As about Dr. Watson, we can imagine that he observed
how an infant, like Albert, could successfully and quickly learn new
life skills and explore the world, while being cool and
business-oriented (or “unemotional”, as the study described Albert).
Probably, this was not the case with Dr. Watson. He likely found that
his progress, in his exploration of the world and human psychology,
became limited or even stagnated. (Indeed, he could not even predict
the scope of Albert’s conditioning.) It could look frustrating to Dr.
Watson: an infant explores and challenges the world, while Dr. Watson
himself was unable to do the same!
Dr. Watson realized, that he could modify or manipulate the behavior of the
infant, not in a way to help the infant in his development, but to generate the
same reactions in relation to
the world as Dr. Watson had. Hence, by making Albert frustrated and
afraid, Dr. Watson created from Albert an emotional buddy, who would
also have reactions similar to Watson’s and, later, a similar mindset
(an inability to cope with the world should gradually affect Albert’s general
world outlook). Hence, Dr. Watson solved the problem of
his loneliness and isolation.
Moreover, in this emotional union with the infant, Dr. Watson
acquired a domineering position since the infant, apart from becoming
Watson’s emotional colleague, also became like a marionette or
string-puppet secretly manipulated by Dr. Watson from behind.
According to his writing, Dr. Watson’s frustration with life became
about ten times stronger a decade later since he demanded more healthy
children for his “studies” (or to displace his frustration). In his
1930’s book Behaviorism, Dr. Watson made the following famous
claim, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own
specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one
at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might
select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man
and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities,
vocations, and race of his ancestors” (Watson, 1930).
Now we know why Dr. Watson was asking about “healthy infants” (or
infants who were originally explorers, discoverers, and inventors) and
which type of people will be produced by his method. Since all these
traumatized people would require an army of psychologists to care about
them, we can also hypothesize why Dr. Watson became the President of
the American Psychological Association.
Final remarks and consequences
Dr. Watson and Rayner, together with modern psychology textbooks
authors, failed to understand all the ramifications and to correctly label the
essence of the Little Albert experiment, as well as this article. These people were in a state
of confusion and could not get even a simple conditioning in its full
flavor (with all consequences including obvious generalization). The state of foolishness present in modern psychology is even
more obvious from the fact that in 1957 the American Psychological
Association awarded Dr. John Watson the gold medal for his
“contributions” to the field of psychology, while modern textbooks
continue to distort this monumental psychological study. This situation
testifies that modern psychology, especially social psychology, has so
far failed to be a practically useful science that promotes peace,
cooperation and the social wellbeing of humanity.
Related web pages:
- John B. Watson's Sexual
Frustration and Little Albert Experiment
References (first 3 articles can be found online, open access):
Harris, B., Whatever Happened to Little Albert? American
Psychologist, 1979. 34, 2, pp. 151–160;
Jones, C. M., A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case of Peter.
Pedagogical Seminary, 1924, 31, pp. 308–315.
Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R., Conditioned emotional reactions.
Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1920, 3, 114.
Watson, John B. Behaviorism. University of Chicago Press,
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