The Little Albert Study is a world-famous study in the worlds of both behaviorism and general psychology. It shows that classical conditioning seems to be able to alter human behavior in a controlled environment. Its fame doesn’t just come from astounding findings - the story of the Little Albert study is mysterious, dramatic, dark, and controversial.
But before we get into the gritty details of the study, let’s talk about the man behind the study: John B. Watson.
Who Was John B. Watson?
John B. Watson is a controversial and highly important figure in the world of psychology. He is known as the “Father of Behaviorism” for the Little Albert study and other work. His most profound work, including the creation of a speech called “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” took place while he was at Johns Hopkins University. Watson was fired from Johns Hopkins in 1920 - but we’ll get to that later.
John B. Watson is not the only psychologist known for his work on classical conditioning. The more famous psychologist in this study is Ivan Pavlov. Him, and his famous dog study, are considered the “founders” of classical conditioning.
Classical conditioning is the process of learning an association of behavior through two different stimuli. At first, the stimuli are not connected. (In the case of Pavlov, the stimuli were the bell and the food.) Through the classical conditioning process, the dogs connected the sound of the bell with getting food. The sound of the bell eventually elicited a response - the dogs started salivating. The experiment was not meant to train the dogs to salivate, but that was the response.
John Watson, however, wanted to see if he could do the same with humans, including children.
Who Was Little Albert?
John B. Watson took an idea from this theory. What if all of our behaviors were due to classical conditioning? What if we salivated only after connecting certain events with getting food? What if we only became afraid of touching a stove after we first put our hand on a hot stove and felt pain? What if fear was something we learned?
These are the questions that Watson attempted to answer with Little Albert.
Little Albert was a nine-month-old baby. His mother was a nurse at Johns Hopkins University where the experiment was conducted. The baby’s name wasn’t really Albert - it was just a pseudonym that Watson used for the study. Due to the baby’s young age, Watson thought it would be a good idea to use him to test his hypothesis about developing fear.
Here’s how he conducted his experiment, which is now known as the “Little Albert Study.”
What happened in the Little Albert Experiment?
John Watson exposed Little Albert to a handful of different stimuli. Among the stimuli included a white rat, a monkey, a hairy mask, a dog, and a seal-skin coat. When Watson first observed Little Albert, he showed no fear of any of the stimuli, including the white rat. John's goal was to help Albert learn to fear the white rat through classical conditioning.
Then, Watson began the conditioning.
He would introduce the white rat back to Albert. Whenever Little Albert touched the rat, Watson would smash a hammer against a steel bar behind Albert’s head. Naturally, this stimuli scared Albert and he would begin to cry. This was the “bell” of Pavlov’s experiment, but you can already see that this experiment is far more cruel.
Like Pavlov’s dogs, Little Albert became conditioned. Whenever he saw the rat, he would cry and try to move away from the rat. Throughout the study, he exhibited the same behaviors when exposed to any sort of “hairy” stimuli, even stimuli that was just "white". This process is called stimulus generalization.
What Happened to Little Albert?
The Little Albert study was conducted in 1920. Shortly after the findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Johns Hopkins gave Watson a 50% raise. However, the raise - and Watson’s position at the University - did not last long. At the end of 1920, Watson was fired.
Why? At first, the University claimed it was due to an affair. Watson conducted the Little Albert study with his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner. They fell in love, despite Watson’s marriage to Mary Ickes. Ickes was a member of a prominent family in the area - upon the discovery of the affair, Watson and Rayner’s love letters were published in a newspaper. John Hopkins claimed to fire Watson for “indecency.”
Years later, rumors emerged that Watson wasn’t fired simply for his divorce. Watson and Rayner were allegedly conducting behaviorist experiments concerning sex. Those rumors included claims that Watson, who was movie-star handsome at the time, had even hooked devices up to him and Rayner while they engaged in intercourse. These claims seem to be false, but they appeared in psychology textbooks for years.
There is so much to this story that is wild and unusual! One of the biggest questions that people ask upon hearing this story is “What happened to Little Albert?”
Well, this element of the story isn’t without uncertainty and rumor. In 2012, researchers claimed to uncover the true story of Little Albert. The boy’s real name was apparently Douglas Merritte, who died at the age of seven. Merritte had a serious condition of built-up fluid in the brain. This element of the story was significant - Watson claimed that Little Albert was a healthy and normal child. If Merritte was Little Albert, then Watson’s lies about the child’s health would seriously put an ugly mark on his legacy.
And it did, until questions about Merritte began to arise. Further research puts another candidate into the ring: William Albert Barger. Barger was born on the same day, in the same hospital as Merritte. His mother was a wet nurse in the same hospital where Watson worked. Barger’s story is a lot more hopeful than Merritte’s - he died at age 87. Researchers met with his niece, who claimed that her uncle was particularly loving toward dogs, but otherwise showed no evidence of fear that would have been developed through the famous study.
The mystery lives on.
This is certainly a fascinating story, but psychologists do note that it is not the most ethical study.
The claims about Douglas Merritte are just one example of how the study could (and definitely did) cross the lines of ethics. If Little Albert was not the healthy boy that Watson claimed - well, there’s not much to say about the findings. Plus, the experiment was only conducted on one child. Follow-up research about the child and his conditioning never occurred (but this is partially due to the scandalous life led by Watson and Rayner.)
Behaviorism, the school of psychology founded in part by this study, is not as “hot” as it was back in the 1920s. But no one can deny the power and legacy of the Little Albert study. It is certainly one of the more important studies to know in psychology, both for its scandal and for its place in studying learned behaviors.