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Little Albert Experiment: The Most Distorted Study Ever

Among all psychological studies, the Little Albert experiment (article’s 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,

A boy similar to Little Albert experiment boy 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 mattress;

- fell to right side and rested upon hands, with head turned away from rat;

- 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 trunk away;

- 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 executed.

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, fear­arousing 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 happened.

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 past conflict?

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 trauma.

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 pleasure?

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 caught.
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 mask.
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, 1920).

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.

Keywords: Watson, Little Albert, conditioning, manipulation, trauma, attitude, mindset, generalization, sadism, avoidance, displacement, group thinking, responsibility, stress, release, truth.

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, 1930.

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