The Notorious Little Albert Experiment

In the annals of psychology, there exists a tale that has both perplexed and horrified scholars for decades. This gripping story unfolds in the early 20th century when a maverick psychologist named John B. Watson embarked on an audacious experiment that would forever etch his name in the annals of scientific history. The experiment, shrouded in controversy and ethical questions, has since been known as the Little Albert Experiment. Join me as we delve into this astonishing chapter of psychology, a journey into the mind of a newborn and a profound exploration of the human psyche.

To understand the Little Albert Experiment, we must first acquaint ourselves with the backdrop against which it unfolded. Enter Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist whose chance discovery laid the foundation for behaviorism. In the course of his studies on the digestive system of dogs, Pavlov stumbled upon a peculiar phenomenon. His canine subjects began salivating not only at the sight of food but also at the mere presence of his research assistants. Pavlov’s astute observation led him to realize that the dogs had formed a connection between these assistants and the anticipation of food.

Intriguingly, Pavlov discovered that he could condition the dogs to salivate in response to a neutral stimulus, a metronome ticking away in the background. This groundbreaking insight revealed that reactions to seemingly random stimuli could be conditioned with the right techniques, opening a new avenue of exploration for psychologists like Watson.

The Brave New World of Little Albert

Enter Little Albert, a newborn thrust into the spotlight of behavioral experimentation. Watson, inspired by Pavlov’s work, harbored a burning curiosity—could humans be conditioned in a similar manner? Watson’s choice of a child as a subject may raise eyebrows today, but his belief in infants as emotional blank slates led him down this uncharted path.

Albert, whose identity was concealed for decades, made his debut into Watson’s laboratory at the tender age of 8 months and 26 days. Described as a remarkably placid and unemotional infant who rarely cried, Albert was the perfect canvas upon which Watson could paint his behavioral masterpiece.

Albert’s journey into the world of behavioral conditioning began with a series of examinations to gauge his initial reactions to various stimuli. In a curious lineup, the infant was exposed to a white lab rat, a bunny, a monkey, and even the perplexing sight of burning newspaper. Astonishingly, none of these experiences seemed to ruffle the unflappable Albert.

The Shocking Twist

The true turning point arrived when Albert reached the age of 11 months and 3 days. On that fateful day, Watson reintroduced the fluffy white lab rat into Albert’s life. As anticipated, the child reached out to caress the furry creature. But here’s where the experiment took a dark and disturbing turn.

Watson, like a puppet master pulling strings, used a hammer to strike a concealed steel bar, creating a jarring, ear-piercing noise that shattered the tranquility of the moment. Albert’s response was immediate and heart-wrenching—he wailed in terror. Watson repeated this cruel experiment multiple times until the mere sight of the rat sent Albert into a frenzy of fear, causing him to crawl away in desperation.

The Cost of Curiosity

For Albert’s mother, complicity in this shocking experiment came at the cost of a single U.S. dollar, equivalent to roughly $12 in today’s currency. She was purportedly employed as a wet-nurse at The Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, an institution affiliated with Johns Hopkins University. Some speculate that her participation was driven by the fear of losing her job rather than a genuine endorsement of the experiment.

Watson, aware of the ethical quagmire surrounding his actions, offered a feeble justification for his experiment. He mused, “The attempt to bring up fear reactions experimentally was met with a great deal of reluctance on our part at the beginning of the process. Taking such a course of action comes with a certain amount of responsibility. In the end, we made the decision to give it a shot, and we reassured ourselves by thinking that such attachments would develop anyhow, as soon as the child got out of the safe setting of the nursery and into the chaotic milieu of the home.”

Unmasking the Child

For years, the identity of Little Albert remained a mystery. Researchers have suggested the names Douglas Merrite and William Barger as potential candidates, given the scant information available. Both Merrite and Barger were born in the same hospital, within a day of each other, where Albert was chosen for the experiment. Additionally, their mothers worked as wet nurses at the hospital, and only four such nurses were employed at any given time.

The Discovery of Douglas Merrite

In a remarkable twist of fate, a painstaking seven-year investigation led by Hall P. Beck, Sharman Levinson, and a relative of Merrite named Gary Irons unveiled the name Douglas Merrite. Yet, Merrite’s story, if indeed he was Little Albert, adds a chilling layer of darkness to the already controversial experiment. According to Beck’s findings, Merrite was afflicted by hydrocephalus, a condition characterized by an accumulation of fluid in the brain. Tragically, this ailment claimed his life at the tender age of six.

This revelation stands in stark contrast to Watson’s depiction of Albert as a remarkably healthy and developed child. If these findings hold true, they suggest not only deliberate falsehoods on Watson’s part but also the torment of a terminally ill child.

The Legacy of Little Albert

As we conclude our exploration into the enigmatic world of the Little Albert Experiment, we are left with more questions than answers. Was John B. Watson a pioneering psychologist pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, or a reckless experimenter who subjected an innocent child to psychological trauma? Was Little Albert’s life forever marred by the experiment, or did he find a way to overcome the phobias instilled in him?

This infamous experiment will continue to haunt the pages of psychology textbooks, a stark reminder of the ethical dilemmas that can arise in the pursuit of scientific discovery. It serves as a cautionary tale, urging us to navigate the intricate maze of human behavior with sensitivity and responsibility.

In the end, the story of Little Albert is a testament to the complexities of human nature, a tapestry woven with threads of curiosity, morality, and the enduring quest to unravel the mysteries of the human mind.