Little Albert Experiment | How Classical Conditioning works

Experimental psychology, as a subject, has always fascinated me. How thrilling it must be for the psychologists to know how a human being would behave or respond when put under specific circumstances; and ultimately generalize that behaviour!

This article talks about one such amazing experiment performed to test a learning process called Classical Conditioning. Let’s dive right in.

Little Albert Experiment Analysis and Psychology

In an experiment performed in 1920 by John B. Watson, an American psychologist known for his works on behaviourism, and Rosalie Rayner, his graduate student, it was observed that reactions could be classically conditioned in people.

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian psychologist, had earlier discovered salivation by dogs in response to food in the 1890s. He experimented with how his dogs would salivate whenever the footsteps of their food server were being heard. His research birthed the classical conditioning theory.

After studying Ivan's works, Watson experimented with how reactions could be conditioned in people classically. A nine-month-old baby, known as Albert, was placed with a white rat. This experiment aimed to make the child fearful of the rat, but Albert showed no sign of fear for the white rat.

Secondly, they presented him with the white rat and produced a noise by banging a hammer against an iron rod behind him. Little Albert became fearful of the rat at this stage, and he cried out loud. This second stage was repeated when Albert turned 11 months, and it produced the same result.

Little Albert developed a phobia for the rat with and without the noise that he would crawl hastily away from it with tears. About five (5) days later, he became very fearful of things similar to the white rat (such as a dog, a fur coat, and a mask). This behaviour is known as Little Albert Experiment Generalization because he generalized his phobia for the white rat with other similar objects.

What did the experiment conclude?

Little Albert Experiment Conclusion

John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner finally argued that classical conditioning could produce a human fear response.

Well, there were some ethical issues involved as well...

Little Albert Experiment Ethical issues

It's, however, noteworthy that this experiment lacked concrete evidence and scientific proof. The health of the child (Albert) was also questioned as two psychologists, Hall P. Beck and Sharman Levinson, after seven years of intensive research, claimed that Albert was a boy known as Douglas Merritte who died of hydrocephalus (a build-up of fluid in the cavities deep within the brain) when he was only five.

Beck and Levinson also claimed that Albert was always crying at that age and that Watson and Rayner were aware of Albert's abnormal behaviour before they experimented.

However, Psychology researchers Russ Powell and Nancy Digdon argued that the little Albert was one William Barger, who was usually called Albert by his relatives. He revealed that the little Albert was healthy and eventually died in 2007 at age 87.

Watson and Rayner's experiment also conflicts with modern moral principles. Such research would not be allowed today as the law has been passed to prevent the recurrence of such harmful experiments.

Watson and Rayner did not inform Albert's parents about the experiment, and it was gathered that they were unable to conduct a further experiment to reverse the condition response (as planned) as his mother took him away the day the last tests were made. According to findings made by Hall P. Beck, Albert never learned to walk or talk throughout his life.

Psychologists believe Watson and Rayner were harming the child psychologically by creating a fear response in him.

Little Albert Experiment Summary

  • The Little Albert Experiment was performed in 1920, and it was aimed at conditioning fear in an emotionally stable child.

  • Albert B, a nine-month-old infant, was placed with a white rat, and he showed no sign of fear.

  • However, little Albert would burst into tears if a hammer was struck against an iron rod behind him while the rat was still with him.

  • Little Albert later became very fearful of the rat with and without striking the hammer against the iron rod.

  • Finally, he became fearful of things associated with rats, including the fur collar of his mother's coat.


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