Little Known Facts: finding Little Albert

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Photo courtesy of shellsandpebbles.com

In 1918, American psychologist John B. Watson and research collaborator Rosalie Rayner conducted an ethically questionable study of classical conditioning in humans. Watson and Rayner sought to instill a rat phobia in “Little Albert,” an infant child, by pairing the rat, a neutral stimulus, with a frightening sound. 

Before their findings were published in print, Russell Powell, Nancy Digdon and Christoper Smithson presented their identification of Little Albert at CHEIRON: The International Society for the History of the Behavioral and Social Sciences meeting, which was held at the University of Dallas in 2013. 

Little Albert’s name was not fully revealed as a way to protect his privacy. 

The findings reported at UD contrasted with earlier discoveries. Initially, Little Albert’s identity remained uncertain until Hall P. Beck and colleagues published a paper identifying Little Albert as Douglas Merritte, a neurologically impaired infant.

The initial identification suggested that Watson disregarded ethics to a great extent. Because Merritte was not a healthy child–as the story seemed to indicate–thus misrepresenting the results. However, the second team of researchers found evidence suggesting that Little Albert was, in fact, Albert Barger, a healthy child. If true, this fact could redeem Watson’s work to some extent.

UD Professor of Psychology Dr. Robert Kugelmann was the event’s local host for that year. In an interview, he recalled giving psychology students the opportunity to attend any meetings of their choosing if they helped with registration. Kugelmann was interested in Powell, Digdon and Smithson’s findings in particular. 

“In the grand scheme of things it’s not important [to know Little Albert’s identity],” said Kugelmann. “If you’re interested in the history of psychology, the Watson/Reyner experiment with conditioning fear in a toddler is one of those real landmark studies because it extended experimental methodology to developmental areas in a way that hadn’t been done before.” 

Watson and Rayner had documented the study through film, in which they exposed a curious Little Albert to a monkey dangling on a leash, an excited dog, a white mouse and a rabbit. Offscreen, the couple then repeatedly exposed Little Albert to a rat and a loud, frightening sound simultaneously. The film later continues and Little Albert is visibly upset at the sight of the rat and other furry objects. 

At UD, Powell and colleagues presented their evidence, including a conversation with Little Albert’s niece who informed them that Albert Barger retained a dislike for furry animals as an adult, though that may not have been a result of the study.  

“[Watson and Rayner’s study is] one of those iconic studies in the history of psychology, and it’s in all the textbooks,” said Kugelmann, who shares this anecdote with psychology students yearly in his classes. 

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