A paper just published in the journal History of Psychology provides a fresh look at one of the most often-discussed early studies of human behavior.
The study, referred to as the “Little Albert Experiment” was performed by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner in 1920 while they were with Johns Hopkins University. Watson took 9-month-old baby Albert B. and set out to study how an infant’s reactions might be conditioned. He exposed the baby to a white rat which was allowed to approach and climb on the child, who had little reaction. Then Watson exposed the child to the rat while making a loud smashing sound, resulting in the infant crying. After several exposures to simultaneous rat views accompanied by the raucous sound, the baby began to cry upon seeing the rat, even with no sounds. From this study, Watson concluded humans were impressionable and could be deeply manipulated. Generations of psychology students have read the “Little Albert” experiment. The experiment has often been used as a spring board for ethics discussions.
Watson established the psychological school of behaviorism in America. In 1924 he boasted: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specialized world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee you to take any one of them at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”
Now, in a splendid example of first-class historical investigation, the authors of “Little Albert: A Neurologically Impaired Child” have exposed Watson’s study as fraudulent and even more unethical than it appeared on its face.
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