The experiment with little Albert is one of the most confusing and controversial stories in the history of psychology. John B. Watson conducted this experiment. Many people consider him the father of behaviorism. In general terms, he stated that we can shape human behavior on the basis of stimuli and reactions.
Behaviorism essentially points out that we can shape or “train” human behavior. Unlike schools of thought, behaviorists believe that the happiness of an elderly person in China is exactly the same as that of a baby from Mexico. So it doesn’t matter what happens inside. What matters is the behavior we can observe.
To test his basic hypothesis , John Watson decided to conduct a series of experiments. The most famous experiment was with little Albert, a 9 month old baby.
After those tests, Watson never knew that the baby was born. However, some investigators decided to find out what had happened to him. The results were very surprising.
The experiment with little Albert
Before we talk about what happened to “Albert” and Watson, let’s briefly go back to what the experiment with little Albert was all about.
According to what Watson said in his notes, the boy was the son of a nurse at the orphanage. He was selected for the experiment because of his calm and somewhat indifferent nature and his calm response to external stimuli.
What Watson did was expose the baby to various stimuli. A monkey, a white rat, burning paper, and so on. When the child saw each of these things, he was attentive but actually emotionally indifferent to these stimuli. At most he showed a certain curiosity.
Later, Watson added an extra incentive. Whenever the white rat appeared, it hit the table with an iron bar. This caused a thundering sound that frightened the baby.
So the boy began to make a connection between the sound and the rat. After a while he was afraid when he saw the animal. Then the baby also started to be afraid of rabbits and other small animals.
What happened to little Albert?
The experiment with little Albert enabled Watson to prove that we can shape behavior through stimuli. In his notes, he said he had stopped experimenting because the boy was adopted. However, it has never been clear whether or not the fear remained with him after the experiment.
Over time, some researchers wanted to know what had become of little Albert. The psychologist Hall Beck was one of the individuals interested in discovering the truth. Using Watson’s notes and other documents, he found the boy. In 2009 he published his findings.
In his conclusions, he pointed out that Albert was actually Douglas Merritte. He was a child who had suffered from hydrocephalus from birth. He had died at the age of six.
His findings cast doubt on all of Watson’s work. It made his experiment even more dubious. So Watson had used a disabled child to prove his theory.
Another hypothesis and more questions
Another psychologist, Russell A. Powell, of Grand McEwan University in Canada, in turn questioned Beck’s conclusions. Moreover, he started his own research. In 2012, he published his conclusions.
According to him, little Albert was actually William Albert Barger, a normal child, who lived a healthy life and died at the age of 88. He did have an aversion to animals.
Beck and Powell’s hypotheses are both very firm but not conclusive. To try to come to some sort of conclusion, researcher Tom Bartlett published a new paper in June 2014. He concluded that both children had participated in the experiment.
The whole issue is really a discussion of the validity of behaviorism. After all, it is a school of thought that has been heavily criticized for its reductionism.
We can also add to this a certain distaste for John Watson himself. This man had been criticized for separating from his wife after having an affair with Rosalie Rayner, a student who had worked with him as an assistant.
John Watson was expelled from the school of thought of behaviorism. They also revoked his academic degrees. With Rayner, he had two children whom they raised in a strictly behaviorist way. Both children tried to commit suicide when they were adults. The eldest, William, has also succeeded.
In the 1950s all Watson ‘s academic qualifications were restored. Meanwhile, Watson had already turned his attention to another area, advertising.