Throughout the history of science, and in particular that of psychology, experiments have been carried out which, while contributing to the expansion of scientific knowledge, have also given rise to much controversy as to their ethically questionable character. .
In behavioral science, there are already classic experiments such as Stanford Prison, Milgram’s Obedience Experiment, and Harlow’s Primate Experiments which, after their completion, led to changes in the code of ethics in experimental psychology.
however, little Albert’s experience it was, according to many, the most controversial experience, as in it he experimented with a poor, practically abandoned child, using him as an experimental guinea pig to produce phobias. Let’s take a closer look at the history of this experience.
What was little Albert’s experience?
The figure of John Broadus Watson is widely known in behavioral science because he is considered the father of the behavioral branch of psychology. This researcher, along with Rosalie Rayner, was the person responsible for carrying out an experiment that would not go unnoticed in the history of psychology: The experience of little Albert.
Before explaining the experiment itself, however, it is necessary to explain the background that led Watson to conduct his well-known research. Watson was familiar with the work of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist who had won the Nobel Prize in physiology in 1903 with his studies on the digestive system.
Pavlov had experimented with dogs and, while carrying out his experiments, had discovered something very interesting that would be of great use in psychology. When he presented food to his dogs, he made them salivate. Pavlov wondered if he could induce this same behavior without having to present food, but using a neutral stimulus associated with it: a bell.
Thanks to several attempts, Pavlov made the dogs salivate when he heard the bell, Even without presenting them with food. They had associated the sound of the instrument with food. Thus, Pavlov first described associative learning, which today we call classical conditioning. It grounds the behavior of animals (and that of humans) as a sequence of stimuli and responses.
Once he learned this, John B. Watson decided to radically extrapolate this classic conditioning to people, matching it with his ideas about how human emotional behavior works. Watson was a radical positivist, that is, he believed that human behavior could only be studied on the basis of learned behaviors. He was therefore not a supporter of doctrines which spoke of inherited traits and animal instincts.
Given this, it’s no surprise that Watson thought that all human behavior depended on a person’s experiences. The human mind was a blank canvas, a tabula rasa as the empiricist philosophers would have said, a canvas painted with the experiences of the individual throughout his life. Through learning and conditioning, the person would be one way or another. All Watson needed was an experimental subject., A canvas to paint the picture that has proven its theories.
In search of the ideal subject through science
Watson, along with Rosalie Rayner, was a research fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He had been working in this institution for several years when, in 1920, he was finally able to carry out his experiment. His goal was to experiment with a very young baby, The perfect subject in Watson’s eyes, because it would be the perfect blank canvas to condition all kinds of responses without fear that other stimuli before the experiment contaminate the results.
Watson intended to present the baby with a phobic response through a stimulus, which would condition the child to be afraid of him. They would then transfer this phobic response to other stimuli with characteristics similar to the conditioned stimulus. finally the last phase of the experiment would be to turn off the phobic response to the conditioned stimulusThat is to say to correct the fear that had been introduced to him during the experience. Unfortunately, unfortunately for the baby, this phase never came.
While the idea of scaring a baby wasn’t technically cruel, it was, in scientific terms, morally questionable, even for now. It goes without saying Watson had a very limited view of the emotionality of babies., While newborns could only exhibit three recognizable feelings.
- Fear: conditioned by loud noises and lack of elevator.
- Love: conditioned by caresses.
- Anger: conditioned by the deprivation of freedom of movement.
Given Watsonian’s definition of these three basic emotions, No wonder Watson tried to instill fear in the baby, because it was the easiest emotion to study. in an experimental context. Interestingly, inoculation into a newborn was the most ethically questionable.
After clearly defining the purpose and theoretical framework of their research, John B. Watson and his research partner (and in bed) set out in search of the perfect subject, finding the Harriet Lane Home orphanage for disabled children.
Here, one of the nannies carried her newborn son, who spent hours here, almost neglected, while his mother worked. The child had not received emotional stimulation and, according to his mother, had barely cried or expressed anger since birth.. Watson was confronted with his perfect experimental subject: his blank canvas.
So, at the age of only 8 months and 26 days, Albert was chosen to be the experimental guinea pig in one of the most well-known and ethically questionable experiments in the history of psychology.
The experience begins
In the first session, the child was exposed to various stimuli to find out if he was afraid of them before the start of the experiment. He was exposed to a bonfire and several animals, and showed no fear. However, when Watson struck with a metal bar, the boy cried, confirming the idea that it might induce a fear response in infants when faced with a sudden noise.
Two months later, the experiment itself began. The first stimulus Watson and Rayner wanted to condition fear was a white lab rat. By presenting her to Albert, the baby was curious, even wanted to join her. However, its behavior began to change when the experimenters sounded a metal bar while presenting the animal. This process was virtually identical to Watson’s with his dogs, food, and the bell.
Ringing the metal bar and seeing the white rat, the boy started to cry. He stepped back, upset. They tried again, showing him the white rat first and sounding the metal bar. The boy, who hadn’t been afraid of the rat this time either, cried again when he heard the sound of the bell.. The researchers had just succeeded in fulfilling the first condition, leading the child to associate fear with the animal.
At this point, and in the only manifestation of empathy for the baby, Watson and Rayner decided to postpone the remainder of the experimental tests for a week, “so as not to seriously disturb the child.”. It should be noted that this empathy would not thwart the way the experience was going, nor the harm that would be done to poor Albert.
In the second experimental round, Watson made eight more attempts to make sure the boy had bound the rat with fear. On the seventh attempt, he introduced the white rat again with the sudden sound of the metal bar. finally on the eighth attempt, he presented only the white rat, with no abrupt background noise. The boy, unlike the way he behaved in the first experimental sessions, this time was afraid, was crying, did not want to touch the rat, ran away from her.
The experiment continued with two more experimental lots, when little Albert was about 11 months old and when he was 1 and 21 years old. days. Watson wanted to see if he could transfer the fear of the white rat to other stimuli with similar characteristics i.e. they had hair or were white.
To do this, the researchers used various furry animals and objects, very similar to the touch of the white rat: a rabbit, a dog and also a fur coat. When they were introduced to Albert, the boy began to cry, without sounding the metal bar.. The boy was not only afraid of the white rat, but also of things that resembled him. The fear was transferred to other animal-like elements.
The last test, in which Albert was already a year old, was presented with an even more disconcerting stimulus, although at first it may seem innocent: a Santa Claus mask. Seeing the mask of the character of Merry Christmas, Albert also began to cry, Gorgot tried to slap the mask without even touching it. When he was forced to touch her, he moaned and cried even more. Finally, she cried with the simple visual stimulus of the mask.
What happened to little Albert?
The last phase of the experiment consisted of trying to eliminate the inoculated fears. This part was the most important, because in theory it had to mean repairing the harm done to him. The problem was that such a phase never happened.
According to Watson and Rayner themselves, when they tried to start this phase, little Albert had been adopted by a new family, who had moved to another city. The experiment was quickly canceled because the University had been irritated by its ethical controversy.. Additionally, Watson and Rayner were fired when the institution discovered they were romantically involved, which is prohibited between peers.
It is for all this that after being an experimental guinea pig, he lost track of Albert and could not get rid of these fears. The child Parador was unknown until the 2000s, when several lines of research have tried to find out what exactly happened to the child after the end of the experienceYes he had continued to suffer from phobias in his adult life or so Watson and Rayner’s results did not last long. Two were the most thoughtful inquiries.
His name was William Barger
One of the most reliable and plausible lines of research is fairly recent, dating back to 2014. Two researchers, Russ Powell and Nancy Digdon have reviewed the census and literature from the early 20th century and they concluded that Albert was William Barger. The biological mother of this individual had worked in the same orphanage where Watson and Rayner had welcomed little Albert, Harriet Lane.
William Barger had passed away in 2007, so he could not be interviewed to make sure he was little Albert, however, Barger’s relatives said he always had a particular phobia of dogs, In addition to other furry animals.
Albert had hydrocephalus
Although the hypothesis that William Barger was seems the most plausible, another theory, a little older, is considered by many psychologists to be the real culmination of little Albert.
Hall P. Beck and Sharman Levinson published in the APA in 2009 their line of research on how Albert lived after being an experimental subject of John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner. According to this research, Albert he did not live long, dying of congenital hydrocephalus at the age of six.
This finding not only calls into question the ethical scarcity that was little Albert’s experience, but also invalidates the results obtained by Watson and Rayner. In theory, Watson explained his findings believing he had experimented with a healthy child.However, as hydrocephalus may have involved neurological problems, which would explain his lack of emotionality, the psychologist’s research would be strongly questioned.
- Watson, JB and Rayner, R. (1920). “Conditioned emotional reactions”. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3 (1), pages 1-14.
- Beck, HP, Levinson, S. and Irons, G. (2009). Finding Little Albert: A Journey to John B. Watson’s Children’s Laboratory. American Psychologist, 64, 7 pages 605-614.