Little Albert experiment

The Little Albert experiment was an experiment showing empirical evidence of classical conditioning in humans. This study was also an example of stimulus generalisation. It was conducted in 1920 by John B. Watson along with Rosalie Rayner, his assistant whom he was fired for having an affair with, then later married. The study was done at Johns Hopkins University.

John B. Watson, after observing children in the field, was interested in finding support for his notion that the reaction of children, whenever they heard loud noises, was prompted by fear. Furthermore, he reasoned that this fear was innate or due to an unconditioned response. He felt that following the principles of classical conditioning, he could condition a child to fear another distinctive stimulus which normally would not be feared by a child.


John Watson and his partner Rayner chose Albert B. from a hospital for this study at the age of nine months. Albert's mother was a wet nurse at the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children. Before the commencement of the experiment, Little Albert was given a battery of baseline emotional tests; the infant was exposed, briefly and for the first time, to a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, masks with and without hair, cotton wool, burning newspapers, etc. During the baseline, Little Albert showed no fear toward any of these items.

Watson and his colleague did not begin to condition Little Albert until approximately two months later, when he was just over 11 months old. The experiment began by placing Albert on a mattress on a table in the middle of a room. A white laboratory rat was placed near Albert and he was allowed to play with it. At this point, the child showed no fear of the rat. He began to reach out to the rat and gurgle as it roamed around him. In later trials, Watson and Rayner made a loud sound behind Albert's back by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer when the baby touched the rat. Not surprisingly in these occasions, Little Albert cried and showed fear as he heard the noise. After several such pairings of the two stimuli, Albert was again presented with only the rat. Now, however, he became very distressed as the rat appeared in the room. He cried, turned away from the rat, and tried to move away. Apparently, the baby boy had associated the white rat (original neutral stimulus, now conditioned stimulus) with the loud noise (unconditioned stimulus) and was producing the fearful or emotional response of crying (originally the unconditioned response to the noise, now the conditioned response to the rat). Loud sound (Unconditioned Stimulus) -> Fear (Unconditioned Response) Natural response.

Rat (Neutral Stimulus) + Loud sound (Unconditioned Stimulus)-> Fear (Unconditioned Response) During pairing them.

Rat (Conditioned Stimulus) -> Fear (Conditioned Response) Learning occurs. Notice how the response never changes.

What was problematic about this experiment was that Little Albert seemed to generalise his response so that when Watson sent a (non-white) rabbit into the room seventeen days after the original experiment, Albert also became distressed. He showed similar reactions when presented with a furry dog, a seal-skin coat, and even when Watson appeared in front of him wearing a Santa Claus mask with white cotton balls as his beard, although Albert did not fear everything with hair.

Shortly after the series of experiments were performed, Albert was taken from the hospital; therefore, all testing was discontinued for a period of 31 days. Watson and his colleagues had planned to attempt to desensitize (pair the white rat with warm milk which babies love) Albert and eliminate these fearful reactions. However, Albert left the hospital on the day these last tests were made, and no desensitizing ever took place, hence the opportunity of developing an experimental technique for removing the Conditioned Emotional Response was denied. Nothing is known of Albert's later life. However, Watson himself stated later that he knew the boy would depart one month before the trial ended. Had the opportunity existed, they would have tried several methods:
i) constantly confronting the child with those stimuli which produced the responses, in the hope that habituation would occur
ii) trying to "recondition" by showing objects producing fear responses (visual) while simultaneously stimulating the erogenous zones (tactual), first the lips, then the nipples, and, as a last resort, the sexual organs.
iii) trying to "recondition" by feeding him candy or other food just as the animal is shown
iv) building up "constructive" activities around the object by imitation and putting the hand through the motions of manipulation.

A study on reconditioning a child was conducted several years later by Mary Cover Jones (1924). It was one of the first studies on behavioral therapy. The child was selected to take part in study because s/he had personality characteristics similar to those of Albert B. As author notes:


A recent detailed review (Harris, 1979) of the original study and its subsequent misinterpretations, found that: As author concluded: It was also found that most of textbooks "suffer from inaccuracies of various degrees" while referring to Watson and Rayner's study. Texts often misrepresent and maximize the range of Albert's post-conditioning fears.

According to some text books, Albert's mother worked in the same building as Watson and didn't know the tests were being conducted. When she found out, she took Albert and moved away, letting no one know of where they were going. To this day, nobody knows who/where "Little Albert" is..


Albert was eight months and twenty six days old at the time of the first test. Because of his young age, the experiment today would be considered unethical. Since this experiment, and others that pushed the boundaries of experimental ethics, the American Psychological Association has banned studies considered unethical.

By present-day standards, Watson's experiment was unethical for several reasons. Albert's mother was not informed of the experiment. It was performed without her consent. Researchers today are required to obtain fully informed consent from participants or in the case of infants/children, from their parents/guardians before any study can begin.

It is also today considered unethical to evoke responses of fear in a laboratory setting, unless a participant has given informed consent to being intentionally frightened as part of an experiment. Experiments should not cause the participants to suffer any distress or harm in any way. If a participant was to become distressed during an experiment, the researcher is required to abandon the study and immediately address the needs of the participant. The welfare of the participants must always be the paramount consideration in any form of research.

Albert's fear was not distinguished because he moved away before systematic desensitization could be administered. It is presumed that, all though he still must have had fear conditioned to many various stimuli after moving, he would likely have been desensitized by his natural environments later in life. However, as mentioned above, today's ethics would never permit this study to be replicated the same way.

In popular culture

A similar method of conditioning children appears in Aldous Huxley's science fiction novel Brave New World (published in 1932). There children of lower castes are described as conditioned to dislike books and various objects associated with nature, like flowers, in order better to fit into their caste's assigned lifestyle.


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