Conducted in 1920 at Johns Hopkins University by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner, the Baby Albert Experiment sought to uncover the mysteries of human conditioning but raised serious ethical concerns. In this blog post, we will explore the study and its impact.
Background & Design
The experiment was a pioneering exploration of classical conditioning, a theory originally put forth by Ivan Pavlov. The researchers aimed to investigate whether fears could be conditioned in humans through associative learning, similar to Pavlov’s original experiments with dogs. Specifically, Watson and Rayner sought to determine whether a conditioned emotional response (fear) could be established in an 9-month-old infant, known as “Albert,” through the pairing of a neutral stimulus (a white rat) with a loud, frightening noise.
Initially, Albert was exposed to various stimuli, including a white rat, a white rabbit, a dog, a monkey, masks, and cotton wool. During this phase, Albert displayed no fear or negative emotional reactions to these stimuli. The researchers then began introducing a loud, frightening noise (the unconditioned stimulus) by striking a steel bar with a hammer whenever Albert reached for or touched the white rat (the neutral stimulus). The loud noise was intended to create fear (the unconditioned response). Over multiple trials, the white rat and other neutral stimuli were presented along with the loud noise. The idea was to associate the neutral stimuli with the fear response triggered by the noise.
What they Found
- Conditioned Emotional Response. The experiment successfully demonstrated that Baby Albert, who initially showed no fear of the white rat, could be conditioned to fear it when the rat was repeatedly paired with a loud, aversive stimulus (the loud noise). This illustrated the process of classical conditioning, where an initially neutral stimulus becomes associated with an emotional response (in this case, fear).
- Generalization of Fear. The study showed that Baby Albert’s fear response generalized to other similar stimuli, including a rabbit, a dog, and a fur coat. This phenomenon indicated that the fear response had been generalized from the white rat to other objects with similar characteristics.
- Long-Term Effects. The study suggested that classical conditioning could lead to lasting emotional changes. Baby Albert’s conditioned fear response to the white rat persisted even after the study ended. However, due to the study’s ethical concerns, there was no opportunity for follow-up or debriefing to assess the long-term impact on Baby Albert.
Ethical Concerns of the Study
This experiment was extremely unethical on multiple fronts. However, there were two primary violations that are worth highlighting:
- Informed Consent & Deception. Baby Albert’s mother was not fully informed about the nature of the experiment and its potential consequences. She consented without a complete understanding of the procedures
- Potential Harm. The experiment exposed Baby Albert to emotional distress, potentially causing long-term psychological harm. He was given a conditioned fear, and due to the researchers behavior/deception the parents denied them access to Albert for further study and desensitization. For this reason, it was unknown what long-term impact the study had on Albert.
In the early 20th century, the ethical standards in research were less developed than today. The Baby Albert Experiment was conducted at a time when the importance of informed consent and ethical guidelines was not as widely recognized. It played a role in raising awareness about the need for stricter ethical oversight in psychological research.
It’s important to note that while the Baby Albert Experiment provided valuable insights into classical conditioning and the ability to condition emotional responses in humans, it also raised significant ethical concerns related to the well-being and treatment of the infant participant. The ethical shortcomings of the study, including the lack of informed consent and potential harm to the participant, have led to ongoing debates about the ethics of psychological research.
The true identity of Albert was lost for nearly a century. In 2009, a team published the findings from seven years of research into Albert’s identity. It was found that Little Albert was in fact Douglas Merritte. Unfortunately, Douglas died of hydrocephalus when he was only 6 years old.
Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0069608
Beck HP, Levinson S, Irons G. Finding Little Albert: a journey to John B. Watson’s infant laboratory. Am Psychol. 2009 Oct;64(7):605-14. doi: 10.1037/a0017234. PMID: 19824748.