Little Albert experiment

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One of a series of published stills taken from film of the experiment

The Little Albert experiment was a case study showing empirical evidence of classical conditioning in humans. This study was also an example of stimulus generalization. It was carried out by John B. Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, at Johns Hopkins University. The results were first published in the February 1920 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

John B. Watson, after observing children in the field, was interested in finding support for his notion that the reaction of children, whenever they heard loud noises, was prompted by fear. Furthermore, he reasoned that this fear was innate or due to an unconditioned response. He felt that following the principles of classical conditioning, he could condition a child to fear another distinctive stimulus which normally would not be feared by a child.


The aim of Watson and Rayner was to condition phobias into an emotionally stable child.[1] They chose Albert from a hospital for this study at the age of almost nine months.[2] Albert's mother was a wet nurse at the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children. Albert was the son of an employee of the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where Watson and Rayner were conducting their experiments.[3]

As the preliminary to the experiment, Little Albert was given a battery of baseline emotional tests: the infant was exposed, briefly and for the first time, to a white rabbit, a rat, a dog, a monkey, masks with and without hair, cotton wool, burning newspapers, etc. During the baseline, Little Albert showed no fear toward any of these items. Albert was then placed on a mattress on a table in the middle of a room. A white laboratory rat was placed near Albert and he was allowed to play with it. At this point, the child showed no fear of the rat. He began to reach out to the rat as it roamed around him. In later trials, Watson and Rayner made a loud sound behind Albert's back by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer when the baby touched the rat. Little Albert responded to the noise by crying and showing fear. After several such pairings of the two stimuli, Albert was again presented with only the rat. Now, however, he became very distressed as the rat appeared in the room. He cried, turned away from the rat, and tried to move away. Apparently, the baby boy had associated the white rat (original neutral stimulus, now conditioned stimulus) with the loud noise (unconditioned stimulus) and was producing the fearful or emotional response of crying (originally the unconditioned response to the noise, now the conditioned response to the rat).

This experiment led to the following progression of results:

  • Introduction of a loud sound (unconditioned stimulus) resulted in fear (unconditioned response), a natural response.[4]
  • Introduction of a rat (neutral stimulus) paired with the loud sound (unconditioned stimulus) resulted in fear (unconditioned response).[4]
  • Successive introductions of a rat (conditioned stimulus) resulted in fear (conditioned response). Here, learning is demonstrated.

The experiment showed that Little Albert seemed to generalize his response to furry objects so that when Watson sent a non-white rabbit into the room seventeen days after the original experiment, Albert also became distressed. He showed similar reactions when presented with a furry dog, a seal-skin coat, and even when Watson appeared in front of him wearing a Santa Claus mask with white cotton balls as his beard, although Albert did not fear everything with hair. There was some confusion when pairing the noise with the rabbit and dog.[4]

Watson was using the same kind of classical conditioning as Pavlov used in his experiments with dogs.[5]

This experiment did not have a control subject.

Post experiment[edit]

After showing an approach and avoidance conflict with the objects presented to him at the age of 1 year and 21 days, shortly after conclusion of the series of experiments, Albert was removed from the hospital.[6] Watson had discussed hypothetically how to desensitize a human but knew from the beginning of the study that there would not be time. As Albert left the hospital on the day the last tests were made, no desensitizing ever took place, and it is possible that Albert's fear responses would continue post-experiment.[7]

Following the conclusion of the experiment, Watson was known to give weekend lectures describing the Little Albert study. One of these lectures was attended by Mary Cover Jones and the lecture sparked her interest in pursuing graduate work in psychology.[8] She became known as the "mother of behavior therapy" following a study she conducted with a three-year-old named Peter. Jones' participant, Peter, already possessed a fear of white rabbits. Jones used multiple fear-reducing practices to decrease this. Her most successful method was "direct conditioning" where a pleasant stimulus, the child's favorite food, was presented along with the rabbit. The rabbit was brought closer and closer to Peter while in the presence of his favorite food. Eventually, the child became tolerant of the rabbit and was able to touch it without fear.[9] Mary Cover Jones also did extensive research on the study of personality across the lifespan; however, the popularity of the Peter study overshadows some of her more prominent research.[10]

Finding Little Albert[edit]

In 2009, psychologists Hall P. Beck and Sharman Levinson published an article in which they claimed to have discovered the true identity of "Albert B."[11] After reviewing Watson's correspondence and publications, as well as research in public documents (such as the 1920 United States Census and state birth and death records), Beck argued that "Albert B." was a pseudonym for Douglas Merritte, the son of Arvilla Merritte, then a woman who appears to have been a wet nurse at the Harriet Lane Home.[11] Recent research has shown, however, that Douglas Merritte could not have been "Little Albert" (Digdon, N., Powell. R. A., & Harris, B., in press; Powell. R. A., Digdon, N., Harris, B. & Smithson, C., in press).[12] Researchers at MacEwan University found that Little Albert was most likely Albert Barger who died in 2007. After tracking down Albert Barger's family, they came across his niece. She said he was a pretty laid back guy but he didn't really like dogs or small mammals.[13]


A detailed review of the original study and its subsequent interpretations by Ben Harris (1979)[14] stated:

Critical reading of Watson and Rayner's (1920) report reveals little evidence either that Albert developed a rat phobia or even that animals consistently evoked his fear (or anxiety) during Watson and Rayner's experiment.

It may be useful for modern learning theorists to see how the Albert study prompted subsequent research [...] but it seems time, finally, to place the Watson and Rayner data in the category of "interesting but uninterpretable" results.

According to some textbooks, Albert's mother worked in the same building as Watson and didn't know the tests were being conducted. When she found out, she took Albert and moved away, letting no one know where they were going. A 2009 report claims that none of these and other fanciful tales about Little Albert were true.[11]

Some authors write that the baby's mother was a wet nurse at the hospital. Because wet nurses were of low social status, and because she worked for the institution itself, she may have felt unable to turn down a request for her baby to be used in Watson's experiment. "Voluntary consent, as we understand the term today, was not possible to give or to withhold", they write. Presumably, most parents—if given a choice—would not allow their babies to participate in an experiment in which researchers terrify them. But she would have been in a difficult situation since she was dependent on her employer both for her job and for the medical care of her sick baby.[15]

It is difficult to be certain exactly what happened during the Little Albert Experiment since there is a lack of concrete evidence and scientific records. Though a video was taken during the experiment, some textbooks even interpret that differently. Different sources give contradicting information on the course of events that took place surrounding the Little Albert Experiment. Some of these events include what exactly the baby in the experiment was conditioned with, what he later had fears of, and what happened to the child after the experiment.[16]

It was found that most textbooks "suffer from inaccuracies of various degrees" while referring to Watson and Rayner's study. Texts often misrepresent and maximize the range of Albert's post-conditioning fears.


Albert was only eight months old at the time of the first test. Because of his age, the experiment today would be considered unethical by the American Psychological Association's ethic code (see references). Since this experiment, and others that pushed the boundaries of experimental ethics, legislation was passed to prevent unethical and potentially harmful experiments. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the Public Health Service Act, and new required education in using human research participants was put into place by the National Institutes of Health in 2000. In the early 1970s, following widely publicized cases of research abuse, The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was created to study issues surrounding the protection of humans in research. In 1979, the Commission issued a report entitled Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research (commonly called the Belmont Report), which provided the ethical framework that federal regulations for the protection of human participants in research are currently based on.[17][18]

Since standards set by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in the late 1970s, Watson's experiment would not have been allowed for numerous reasons, including its unethical context.[19] It is now measured immoral to evoke reactions of fear in humans under laboratory circumstances, except if the participant has given an informed approval to being purposely horrified as part of the experiment. Experiments should not cause the human participants to suffer unnecessary distress or to be in any way physically harmed. The welfare of the human participants must always be the paramount consideration in any form of research, and this is especially true with specially protected groups such as children.

Albert's fear was not extinguished, because he moved away before systematic desensitization could be administered. It is presumed that, although he still must have had fear conditioned to many various stimuli after moving, he would likely have been desensitized by his natural environments later in life. However, today's ethical guidelines would not permit this study to be carried out or replicated.[17][18][20]

A common belief about the experiment is that it was performed without knowledge or consent by Albert's mother.[11] Recent investigation has shown this to be false.[11] However, though Albert's mother may have in fact given her consent, it is also reasonable to believe that she felt pressured by a number of factors to agree to let Albert participate in the experiment even if she did have reservations. It is known that Albert's mother worked as a wet nurse at Johns Hopkins University, where Watson was employed and the experiment took place. Also, as a wet nurse, Albert's mother would have been considered to have a low social status. Since little Albert's mother was asked by a famous psychologist and fellow Johns Hopkins employee, it is possible she agreed out of fear for the future of her job and pressure from individuals with higher social power. It would have been a further source of questionable ethics for this experiment which already has some other questionable ethical components.[15][21] Researchers today are required to obtain fully informed consent from participants, or—in the case of children—from their parents or guardians beforehand.

In popular culture[edit]

Little Albert was featured in a 1920 film by Rayner and Watson.[22]


  1. ^ Hill, G. (2009). AS & A Level Psychology Through Diagrams, pg 27.
  2. ^ Watson & Rayner, 1920, p. 1
  3. ^ Kasschau, p. 247
  4. ^ a b c Steven Schwartz. Classic Studies in Psychology. Palo Alto: Mayfield Publishing,1986. Print.
  5. ^ “ANYONE: REGARDLESS OF THEIR NATURE CAN BE TRAINED TO BE ANYTHING: JOHN B. WATSON (1878–1958)." Big Ideas Simply Explained: The Psychology Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 2012. Credo Reference. Web. 23 September 2013.
  6. ^ Hill, pg 177.
  7. ^ (Harris, 1979).
  8. ^ Reiss, pg 206.
  9. ^ Cover Jones, pg 310.
  10. ^ Reiss, pg 216.
  11. ^ a b c d e Beck, H. P., Levinson, S., & Irons, G. (2009). "Finding Little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson's infant laboratory". American Psychologist, 64, 7.: 605–614. 
  12. ^ Bartlett, T. (June 2, 2014). "The Search for Psychology's Lost Boy: In 2009 the decades-old mystery of 'Little Albert' was finally solved. Or was it?". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Ben Harris. "Whatever Happened to Little Albert?". Retrieved 30 August 2010. 
  15. ^ a b Bartlett
  16. ^ Harris, 2011, 10
  17. ^ a b American Psychology Association, 2013,
  18. ^ a b National Institute of Health
  19. ^ American Psychology Association, 2013
  20. ^ American Psychology Association, 2010,
  21. ^ Harris, 2011,
  22. ^ Weiten, Wayne (2001). Psychology: Themes & Variations. Belmont: Wadsworth Thomson Learning. p. 230. ISBN 0-534-36714-3. 


  • American Psychological Association (2010). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.
  • American Psychology Association (2013). Human Research Protection.
  • Bartlett, T. (2014, June 2). [1] The Search for Psychology's Lost Boy: In 2009 the decades-old mystery of 'Little Albert' was finally solved. Or was it? Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Bartlett, T. (2012). A New Twist in the Sad Saga of Little Albert.
  • Cover Jones, M. (1924). A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case of Peter. Pedagogical Seminary, 31, pp. 308–315.
  • DeAngelis, T. (2010). 'Little Albert' regains his identity. Monitor on Psychology, 41, 1. pp. 10.
  • Digdon, N., Powell. R. A., & Harris, B. (in press). Little Albert’s alleged neurological impairment: Watson, Rayner and historical revision. History of Psychology.
  • Fridlund, A. J., Beck, H. P., Goldie, W. D., & Irons, G. (2012). Little Albert: A neurologically impaired child. History of Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0026720
  • Harris, B. (2014). Rosalie Rayner, feminist? Revista de Historia de la Psicología, 35, 61-69.
  • Harris, B. (2011). Letting go of Little Albert: Disciplinary memory, history, and the uses of myth. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 47, 1, pp. 1–17. doi:10.1002/jhbs.20470
  • Harris, B. (1979). Whatever Happened to Little Albert? American Psychologist, 34, 2, pp. 151–160.
  • Hill, G. (2009). AS & A Level Psychology Through Diagrams, Oxford University Press.
  • Hock, R. (2005). Forty Studies That Changed Psychology: Explorations into the History of Psychological Research. 5th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  • Kasschau, R. (2001). Understanding psychology. Columbus, OH: Glenco/McGraw-Hill.
  • National Institute of Health (2000). Required Education in the Protection of Human Research Participants.
  • Powell. R. A., Digdon, N., Harris, B. & Smithson, C. (in press). Correcting the record on Watson, Rayner and Little Albert: Albert Barger as ‘Psychology’s lost boy.’ American Psychologist.
  • Reiss, B. K. (1990). A biography of Mary Cover Jones. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. The Wright Institute, Los Angeles, CA.
  • Watson, J.B. and Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1, pp. 1–14.