Little Albert experiment

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Illustration based on film documentation from the Little Albert 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 conducted in 1920 by John B. Watson along with his assistant Rosalie Rayner. The study was done at Johns Hopkins University.

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.


John B. Watson and his partner, Rayner, chose Albert from a house for this study at the age of almost nine months.[1] Baby Albert was chosen because money was offered for his consent in being the subject of the experiment, his mother only made money on the breast milk she sold. Before the commencement of 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.

The experiment began by placing Albert 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. Not surprisingly in these occasions, Little Albert cried and showed fear as he heard the noise. 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.
  • Introduction of a rat (neutral stimulus) paired with the loud sound (unconditioned stimulus) resulted in fear (unconditioned response).
  • 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.

Post experiment

Shortly after the series of experiments were performed, Albert was taken from the hospital; therefore, all testing was discontinued for a period of 31 days. Watson wanted to desensitize him to see if a conditioned stimulus could be removed, but knew from the beginning of the study that there would not be time. However, Albert left the hospital on the day these last tests were made, and no desensitizing ever took place, hence the opportunity of developing an experimental technique for removing the Conditioned Emotional Response was then discontinued.

Finding Little Albert

In 2009, Appalachian State University psychologist Hall P. Beck and two colleagues published an article in which they claimed to have the discovered the true identity "Albert B." [2] 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 an unmarried woman who appears to have been a wet nurse at the Harriet Lane Home.[2] She gave birth to Douglas on March 9, 1919 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was employed at the Harriet Lane Home and a resident of the Johns Hopkins campus at the time of Watson's experiment. Watson obtained his baseline assessment of Little Albert on or around December 5, 1919 when Douglas Merritte was 8 months 26 days old",[2] the same age reported in Watson's article (Watson & Rayner, 1920). No descriptive data beyond a probable photograph were uncovered for Douglas and, hence, nothing is known about the enduring effects of Watson's experiment on the child. The young boy died on May 10, 1925 of hydrocephalus, which he was believed to have developed in 1922. A 2012 article, by another team also including Beck, revised this assertion, showing instead that Merritte had hydrocephalus from birth.[3] The article also included assessments of the boy in the "Albert B." film by a clinical psychologist and a pediatric neurologist (Fridlund and Goldie, respectively), indicating that his responses were indicative of a neurologically compromised child. If true, this would undermine Watson & Rayner's claim that "Albert B." was a "normal" and "healthy" baby and possibly call into question the validity of a highly influential study. Merritte is buried in the cemetery of the Locust Grove Church of the Brethren in Mt. Airy, Maryland.


A detailed review of the original study and its subsequent interpretations by Harris (1979)[4] found that:

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.

It was also 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.

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.[2]


Albert was only eight months at the time of the first test. Because of his young 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, the APA has banned studies considered unethical.[when?]

By present-day[vague] standards, Watson's experiment was unethical for numerous reasons. 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[citation needed].

A common belief about the experiment is that it was performed without knowledge or consent by Albert's mother[citation needed]. Recent investigation has shown this to be false.[2] However, it would have been a further source of questionable ethics. 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

Little Albert was featured in a 1919 film by Rayner and Watson, which is strange, considering that the experiment that he was involved in was conducted a year later.[5]

A similar method of conditioning children appears in Aldous Huxley's 1932 science fiction novel Brave New World. There, children of lower castes are described as conditioned to dislike books and various objects associated with nature, like flowers, in order better to fit into their caste's assigned lifestyle.

In Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Baby Tyrone is conditioned to associate erotic arousal with the smell of plastic Imipolex G. Decades later, his sexual behavior in London is studied in an effort to track V-2 rocket explosions because the plastic is used in the rocket.


  1. ^ Watson & Rayner, 1920, p. 1
  2. ^ 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.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ Fridlund, A J., Beck, H. P., Goldie, W. D., & Irons, G. (2012). "Little Albert: A neurologically impaired child". History of Psychology.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ Ben Harris. "Whatever Happened to Little Albert?". Retrieved 30 August 2010.
  5. ^ Weiten, Wayne (2001). Psychology: Themes & Variations. Belmont: Wadsworth Thomson Learning. p. 230. ISBN 0534367143.