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The Little Albert experiment was an experiment showing empirical evidence of classical conditioning. It was conducted in 1920 by John B. Watson along with Rosalie Rayner, his assistant whom he later married. The study was done at Johns Hopkins University.
Before the start of the experiment, when Albert was 9 months old, Watson and Rayner ran Little Albert through emotional tests. The infant was confronted briefly and for the first time to a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, masks with and without hair, cotton wool, burning newspapers etc. The infant at no time showed any fear.
The actual experiment with Little Albert had Watson exposing Albert to a loud sound (made by a bar being banged right behind Albert's head) while being presented with a white rat. It is important to note that before Albert cried or screamed he thrust his thumb into his mouth, originally. This stimulus made him forget about the loud sound. It took more than 30 times for Watson to finally take Albert's thumb out to get the required reaction. First Albert was exposed to a rat. He did not cry after reaching it with his left hand. But when he reached for it with his right, he began to whimper. The second time, a week after, after a series of testing, Albert was able to cry by only being presented with the rat. Five days later, Albert showed generalization by reacting to a dog, a fur coat, Watson's hair and cotton wool. During the whole experiment, Albert was happy to play with blocks at any time. This testing continued, including more of the above objects and more, like a Santa Claus mask.
Unfortunately, Albert was taken from the hospital the day the last tests were made. Hence the opportunity of developing an experimental technique for removing the Conditioned Emotional Response was denied. Had the opportunity existed, they would have tried several methods: i) constantly confronting the child with those stimuli which produced the responses, in the hope that habituation would occur ii) trying to "recondition" by showing objects producing fear responses (visual) while simultaneously stimulating the erogenous zones (tactual), first the lips, then the nipples, and, as a last resort, the sexual organs. iii) trying to "recondition" by feeding him candy or other food just as the animal is shown iv) building up "constructive" activities around the object by imitation and putting the hand through the motions of manipulation.
It has also been posited that Watson knew in advance when he would no longer have access to the child and did not plan for any reconditioning.
A recent detailed review of the original study and its subsequent (mis) interpretations, (Harris, Ben. "Whatever Happened to Little Albert?" see reference below) concluded
- "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."
Albert was 11 months and three days old at the time of the first test. Because of his young age, the experiment today would be considered unethical. Since this experiment, and others which pushed the boundaries of experimental ethics, the American Psychological Association has banned studies considered unethical.
- Watson, John B. & Rayner, Rosalie (1920). "Conditioned emotional reactions". Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), pp. 1-14. (The little Albert study, on-line)
- Harris, Ben. "Whatever Happened to Little Albert?" American Psychologist, February 1979, Volume 34, Number 2, pp. 151-160. (on-line).
- Abstract: "Using published sources, this article reviews the study's actual procedures and its relationship to Watson's career and work. The article also presents a history of psychologists' accounts of the Albert study, focusing on the study's distortion by Watson himself, general textbook authors, behavior therapists, and most recently, a prominent learning theorist. The author proposes possible causes for these distortions and analyzes the Albert study as an example of myth making in the history of psychology."
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