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Why Watson’s Little Albert Became the Most Distorted Study in the History of Psychology
Among all psychological studies, Little Albert study (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? Which conclusions do the psychologists try to avoid?
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 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 many other, related problems.
The original problem and its solution
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).
This 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 when dealing with some objects:
“- 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 Albert’s problems were solved?
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?(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, colours, weather, buildings, room shapes, objects that attracted his attention, people met before and after, clothes he worn, foods he ate, etc.? Obviously, yes. In my view, there is no such thing as “The infant was conditioned to fear fury 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 what 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 sleep and digestion parameters of 100 experimental and 100 control infants before and after the experiment. What would be logical to expect here?
When these infants grew 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, building, lab, street, university, city, state, etc.). Have anybody heard or seen people who run away from the city, state, or country they lived in for decades or years only because of some unresolved issue or past conflict?
Development of chronic conditions (diseases) can also be measured years later. Would Dr. Watson contribute in this area too?
Hence, there were many other 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.
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 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 Rayner’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. (Watson & Rayner, 1920).
Dog. The dog was very active. Albert fixated it intensely for a few seconds, sitting very still. He began to cry”
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 super Honorable President of whatever organization; he could have support and encouragement of hundreds other Presidents; he could have ultra rewards and medals of many other organization and Universities. This study could be done in the name of science or for private entertainment of national security agents, or whatever else. None of these facts changes the nature of what was practically done and how it should be labelled.
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).
Should he be a pathological sadist, he would never be hired to work in the John Hopkins University and he would never be selected to be the President of the APA. His sadism was masqueraded as “scientific work” making it much worse: socially aggressive and insidious due to behavioural confidence, combined with ugliness, of the authors.
Authors’ mindset and their vision of human potentials
By understanding Little Albert’s world, we can better see the place and meaning of this experiment in the life of this infant. When Little Albert plaid at home, he had no fear, his main reaction to new objects, as it was noticed above, was to manipulate. He investigated and explored new objects and phenomena. When he went to day care, it was the same, he was a truth-seeker and discoverer, as Nature selected human beings. If he visited his aunt, again he was provided with conditions for his further investigations and studies. When he visited other places, it was again the same fear-free and reasonable exploration of the world. However, when he visited Dr. Watson’s lab, day after day, there were bangs and clangs, his stress, crying, avoidance, neuroses, paranoia, etc. Obviously, the kid should love and get thrilled about these “scientists”, their place, and everything that related to it.
As mentioned above, it is only in the overexcited minds of the scientists, where the silly idea “the infant was conditioned to fear fury animals” could exist. Probably, this idea produced a fantasy of their superiority and grandiosity. They could make a fearless Albert to afraid some objects! They imagined that they were like free artists who could take an infant and create some graffiti-type design in his clear and fear-free mind and, thus, modify his behaviour, while hiding in the background. However, the reality happened to be more complex and this testifies about limited abstract abilities and poor logic of Watson and Rayner, who could not grasp the world of less than 1 year old infant.
Most likely, Dr. Watson realized that he could add nothing new and positive to Little Albert’s life and abilities to explore the world. (Obviously, Albert could and would easily go on with his life and world exploration without this “study”.) Indeed, the psychologist could teach Albert some new and useful life skills. Instead, Dr. Watson decided to scare the infant by sudden noises, while hiding behind him. These observations testify about Dr. Watson’s bravery and his vision of his own (limited?) potentials and abilities.
It is clear from the previous discussion that Dr. Watson and Rayner, together with modern psychology textbooks authors, failed to understand all ramifications of the experiment. They were simply in the state of confusion and could not get even a simple conditioning in its full flavour. The state of foolishness 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.
In his 1930’s book Behaviorism, Dr. Watson made even a more grandiose and 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, discoverer, and inventors) and which type of people will be produced by his method. We also know which conclusions psychology textbooks’ authors have been trying to avoid, consciously or, more likely, subconsciously, for decades, by making distortions about this famous experiment.
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, 114-120*.
Watson, John B. Behaviorism. University of Chicago Press, 1930.
*Full texts of first three articles can be found and freely downloaded from the world wide web.
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