A disturbing and sad experiment that revealed the nature of phobias

John Watson and Rosalie Rayner were two researchers at Johns Hopkins University who innocently wondered what caused phobias. Their next move was not quite so innocent. They got themselves a baby, about nine months old, and experimented with drilling fear into a child's mind.

They called the baby Albert B. Albert’s mother was an employee at the hospital, and Albert was staying in the hospital for an unspecified reason.

The researchers showed Albert B, called Little Albert in subsequent mentions of the study, a number of things including a rat, a rabbit, different kinds of masks, burning papers, and a monkey. So far, it sounds like Little Albert had things pretty good. He showed no fear at any of these creatures. They then showed the baby a tame white lab rat and let it roam around until the kid reached out for it. All well and good.

The next time the baby was shown the rat, the psychologists struck a metal bar behind him, making it clang loudly. Albert was startled and began crying. Every time he was showed the rat from then on, he cried and tried to crawl away. He also cried when shown a rabbit, a dog, and Watson in a Santa mask with a fuzzy white beard. Anything furry, white or not, frightened him. The psychologists patted themselves on the back for learning how to consistently and successfully scare a child. Albert B’s mother got one dollar and was able to take her child back to her - ideally pet free – home.

The Little Albert experiment was controversial not because it was unquestionably intended to harm a child, but because the experimenters didn’t get a chance to desensitize the baby. Usually, to get over a fear, all that needs to happen is for a kid to realize that the unpleasant stimulus isn’t really paired up with the thing they fixated on. Rats, dogs, and monkeys don’t clang. Watson and Rayner wanted to try it, but ran out of time.

New controversy appeared when the identity of Albert was established. Many people had tried to find Albert since the 1920s when this experiment was performed. In 2009, investigators pouring over records concluded that Little Albert was Douglas Merritte. He could not be reached because he had died at six years old of hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, can be a result of meningitis, but it appears that Douglas’s hydrocephalus started at birth. According to family members he couldn’t see well, and never learned to walk or speak. As a result, the study very well might have been skewed, as well as being heartless.

Because people are no longer getting away with those kinds of studies, there probably won’t be any more tests like the one performed on Little Albert. This is probably not a bad thing.

Via APA and The Chronicle