John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner carried one of the
most influential psychology studies out in 1920. Psychologists and intro
psychology students alike know the “Little Albert” study. The
reason it is such a landmark study is because Watson was able to show that
emotional responses could be conditioned, or learned. The implications of
this research over the years have been outstanding. Preceding Watson,
Freud and James believed in instinctual systems. Freud thought there were
two types of instincts, sexual and life- preservation. James, however,
claimed there were many more innate instincts.
Conversely, Watson stressed the importance of environmental factors on behavior. Pavlov introduced experiments showing classical conditioning of responses in dog. Pavlov and Watson’s behavioral work lead to B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning experiments ten years later.
Watson wanted to take classical conditioning further than Pavlov did. So, he tested a human and conditioned an emotional response. The idea that something like emotional responses could be conditioned was a very new concept to the world. It not only leads to more research in psychology, but had affects in other disciplines as well. For example, Franz Boas (1883-1942) is known as the “father of anthropology” and introduced the idea to the world that culture was learned, not innate in a specific race of peoples. The “Little Albert” study not only had far reaching implications for the direction of psychology, but for how humans thought of the world and each other.
Albert B. was born to a woman who was a wet nurse in the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children. Although raised in the hospital environment, Albert developed normally and was very stable. When Albert was about eight months old, Watson wanted to determine if a loud sound would cause a fear response in the child. He was placed in a room and an experimenter stood behind him and made a loud noise by striking a hammer on a steel bar. The first time this was done, Albert startled and raised his hands up. The second time, he began to tremble, and on the third time he was crying and having a fit. Around nine of months of age, Albert was run through some tests. He was introduced abruptly to a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, with masks with and without hair, cotton wool, burning newspapers, and other things. At no time did he show any signs of fear or rage. These sessions were recorded on videotape.
After these initial tests, Watson posed some questions. He wanted to determine if an emotional response of fear could be conditioned when the loud noise was paired with a white rabbit or rat, for example. Watson wanted to find out if this fear would transfer to other objects and if so, how long would this response last?
Watson then set out to establish a conditioned emotional response in Albert. At the age of 11 months, Albert began the procedure. He was first presented with a white rat. When he reached out to touch it, the bar was struck. The child fell forward, but did not cry. He reached for the animal again, and the noise was made a second time. This time little Albert cried. One week later, he was presented with the rat again. This time he did not reach for it immediately. Instead, the rat was placed closer to him. Then he
slowly reached for it, but snatched his hand away before making contact with it. The rat was presented again and Albert cried at the sight of the rat alone.
Watson had indeed conditioned a fear response in little Albert. Now he wanted to see if this response would transfer over to other objects. A week after the previous session, Albert was placed in the same room and had blocks to play with. He entered the room, smiled, giggled, and played with the blocks. This showed he had not developed a fear of the room, blocks, or table. The rat was then presented. He turned away from it and whimpered. Albert was then shown a rabbit. He immediately cried and got as far away as possible from it. Then a dog was brought in. Albert did not cry right away. He was acting cautious, and it was only when the dog came right up to his head that he began to cry and tried to get away from it. After this, a seal fur coat was brought into the room. Albert turned from it and was agitated. When it was brought close to him, he cried. Researchers then presented Albert with some cotton wool in a paper bag. Placed at his feet, Albert kicked it away, avoiding contact with his hands. Then Watson, himself put his head down to see if Albert with would play with his hair. He did not. But, he did play with two other researchers hair. Then Watson came in with a Santa Claus mask on and Albert showed a very negative reaction to that.
After another week passed, Albert was exposed to the rat alone. Although he did try to avoid it, his reaction did not involve crying and was not as violent as before. So researchers put the rat in contact with his hand and struck the hammer against the steel again. This time Albert’s reaction was very strong. Then he was shown the rat alone twice more. He immediately moved away from it. The rabbit was brought in and Albert moved away from it and cried. Then the rabbit and the dog were paired with the loud sound and presented alone. Albert showed a fear response in those situations.
Watson then wanted to test whether the reaction would carry over in a different setting. The previous tests were done in a small dark room. Albert was then brought into a large bright lecture hall. He was then presented with the rat, followed by the rabbit. His fear reactions were only slight. However, the dog was brought in and he whimpered in the dog’s presence. Then the rat was paired with the noise, and then presented alone. His fear reaction was stronger when the noise was paired with the rat. The rabbit and the dog were then brought out again and Albert showed withdrawal reactions to both.
Although Watson had shown that the fear response could carry over for a period of a week, he wanted to test it over a longer time. So, Albert was taken home and returned one month later. Albert was first exposed to the Santa Claus mask. He withdrew from it and cried when forced to touch it. Then he cried at the sight of it. The same series of events took place when the researchers brought in the fur coat. Afterwards, the rat was presented, followed by the rabbit. With both animals, Albert showed the withdrawal
reaction and cried when the rabbit was placed on his lap. Albert cried when the dog was brought in. Since Albert’s emotional response seemed to persist over time across environments and generalized to other stimuli, Watson wanted to see if he could essentially “undo” this reaction. Watson proposed several ways in which this might be accomplished. One path to take could have been to habituate Albert to the animals until he the fear response extinguished. Another possible solution could have been to recondition Albert’s responses. This could have been done through pairing the animal with candy or constructive activities. Unfortunately, further studies on “undoing” Albert’s conditioned fear response did not take place because he was never brought back
to the hospital after the previously mentioned session. Nonetheless, Watson was able to make significant statements about his findings and influence the world around him.
Watson concluded that phobias were most likely conditioned responses. He stated that phobias were probably either a fear of the original stimulus or that they had been transferred to other stimuli, as the person grew older. Watson believed, like Freud, that early childhood experiences influenced the adult personality. Watson differed from Freud in that he had behavioral evidence that learned responses in childhood transferred across stimuli and environments, carrying over a period of time, whereas Freud focused more on instincts had no evidence for his theory.
Watson’s work still lives on today. The effects of his research can especially be noticed in contemporary behavior therapy. Behavior therapy can be done via counter-conditioning. An associate of Watson’s, Mary Cover Jones found in 1924 that desensitization of a stimulus was very useful. She worked with a three-year-old boy who was scared of rabbits. She paired the rabbit with a pleasurable activity and the child’s fear disappeared. It wasn’t until Joseph Wolpe’s work in 1958, however, that the term and technique systematic desensitization became popular in psychology. He also introduced progressive relaxation into therapy of phobias. Today, therapists may also use exposure therapy, flooding, or aversive conditioning in the case of alcoholism, for
The “Little Albert” study is extremely important in psychology and other disciplines. It has inspired other important researchers of the past and continues to impact the direction of psychological investigation today. The “Little Albert” implications had a profound effect on the world at the time. In fact, Watson’s findings continue to influence psychology, especially therapy, even in modern times.
Watson, John B. & Rayner, Rosalie. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.