Friday, October 23, 2009

Mad science: Finding Albert.

In the history of psychology, there are a handful of truly infamous experiments: Milgram's faux-shock experiment, the Standford prison experiment, and so on. These experiments have not only become crucial landmarks in the history of psychology, both in terms of the results they produced and the ethical questions they raised, but they have become modern parables that even non-experts evoke to remind us of the grimmer aspects of human nature. But, like all parables, they are wildly open to interpretation and mythologizing.

A lesser known, but no less worthy of consideration and no less mythologized, experiment in the 1920 "Little Albert" by the American behaviorist John Watson. Watson and his assistant want to produce empirical evidence of classical conditioning, the habituation pattern first demonstrated by Pavlov and his dogs. To do so, they took a 9-month-old boy- dubbed "Little Albert" for the purposes of the experiment – and systematically induced a phobia within him. Here's the experimental description from Wikipedia:

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 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).

Under the APA's modern ethics code, this experiment would be considered unethical.

What became of Little Albert, how his parents reacted, and what the researchers tried to do to rid him of the phobia they had created in him has all been the subject of much speculation. Now, after nearly 90 years, researchers have finally discovered the the identity and fate of Little Albert.

From the Mind Hacks blog:

The first step was to find out exactly when the experiments took place and then to try and identify Albert's mother from the information given in Watson's original studies.
Careful sifting of financial and residency records put the researchers onto a campus wet nurse called Arvilla Merritte, but there the trail went cold.
There were no others traces of Arvilla Merritte but a search for her maiden name, Arvilla Irons, revealed that her married name was likely fictitious to hide the fact that her baby was illegitimate.

However, Irons' baby was not called Albert, but Douglas, and it wasn't until the Irons family got in touch to send a photo of the baby that the researchers could try and make a physical comparison.

The photos were blurry and they recruited the help of an FBI forensics expert to compare the images. The comparison suggested that the photos were likely of the same person and with the other matching biographical details it seems very likely that Douglas Merritte was indeed 'Little Albert'.

The story has a tragic ending, however, as Douglas Merritte died when only six years old after developing hydrocephalus, a build up of fluid in the brain, possibly due to a meningitis infection.


Madelon said...

Interesting stuff. Also, am I the only person who is reminded of Peeping Tom?

Troy Z said...

Another favorite website of mine,, also had an article written by Cole Gamble that included Little Albert, called, appropriately enough, "The 6 Biggest Dick Moves in the History of Science":


"John Watson established the entire psychological field of behaviorism by gallantly conducting experiments on babies. Evidently, getting an baby to work on back in the 20s was easy: You just grabbed one that belonged to one of the hospital's employees... an employee who, it should be noted, was not involved in the experiment. Apart from their relationship to the subject/lab rat, of course.

"For this particular experiment, Watson took a baby named Albert and exposed him to rats, monkey masks and burning newspaper. Then he stopped fucking around and began the actual experiment.

"Little Albert would be introduced to a series of fluffy white objects, such as a white rat, a white rabbit and a swatch of white fur. Initially, Albert possessed no fear of these things. During subsequent exposures to the same objects, Watson would hammer a steel bar, creating a terrifying racket. In time, whenever Albert saw anything white and fluffy he cried with fear. This is science.

"Watson's goal was, of course, to see if it was possible to condition fear in an infant. You know, because prior to this infants were regarded as cold, unfeeling machines, incapable of emotion.

"Working tirelessly alongside his assistants, he scared a child for 31 days before returning it to the hospital drenched in terrified excrement (evidently it was just a rental). Unfortunately, Watson spent the entire experiment scaring the shit out of Albert with the hammer of Thor and never got around to actually correcting any of the tremendous psychological damage he was causing, thereby dooming Albert to grow up as a man who pissed his pants at the sight of a cotton ball.

"As if this wasn't enough, it turns out Watson had wanted to do more. He lamented that he didn't have the time to condition both fear and arousal in Albert by stimulating the child's erogenous zones during the experiments, because back then getting an infant to shit all over his own boner was considered the pinnacle of behavioral research."

Anonymous said...

With the depletion of human intelligence and humanities. This will be considered a new form of intelligent investigating. Creating and instilling emotional beliefs to aide in the prosecution of the government's enemies. Those that do not allow them to walk all over them.