John Watson’s ‘ Little Albert ‘ experiment

John B. Watson’s studies relate to classical conditioning.

Watson & Rayner (1920) studied the impact of classical conditioning on the formation of a specific phobia. As their subject, they used ‘Little Albert’ (hence the name of the study); a nine month old baby.  Watson & Rayner applied the elements of classical conditioning to Little Albert as follows:

NS, UCS, UCR, CS, CR

Initially, Little Albert had no fear of furry, white objects, such as mice and rats. In fact, he quite liked them. (Lilienfield et al, 2011) As such, white, furry objects were initially the neutral stimulus; they elicited no response from Little Albert. The unconditioned stimulus in the study was a loud noise, to which Little Albert responded negatively by crying and displaying obvious fear (the unconditioned response). To form the phobia, Watson & Rayner continually paired the neutral stimulus (the white, furry object) with the unconditioned stimulus (the loud noise). This continued pairing formed the conditioned stimilus – the white, furry object associated with the loud noise. The conditioned stimulus formed the conditioned response – crying and fear which was, importantly, due to the white, furry object rather than the noise itself.

In the study, stimulus generalisation occurred, and Little Albert became phobic of all white, furry objects rather than just rats to which he had been conditioned.

Ethics

With today’s more stringent ethical restrictions in research, this study would never be allowed as it was in the 1920s. We can analyse the ethics of the Little Albert experiment by looking at ethical principles and professional conduct. Which of the following principles were violated or were not addressed by Watson & Rayner?

Participants’ rights

  • Violated, because Little Albert was subject to both physical and psychological harm during and after the study.

Confidentiality

  • Ostensibly respected with the pseudonym ‘Little Albert,’ however claims of his true identity were made post-study. May also have been violated due to vision of the study which is presently available without consent.

Voluntary participation

  • Violated. Little Albert did not volunteer for the study.

Withdrawal rights

  • Little Albert would not have had the physical nor mental capacities to withdraw himself from the study.

Informed consent procedures

  • Violated. Little Albert was not of legal age to provide consent for himself, and from some reports, his mother was unaware of the study.

Use of deception in research

  • Little Albert was never informed of the true purpose of the study.

Debriefing

  • Some sources suggest that Little Albert’s mother removed Little Albert before debriefing could occur, and before the ill-effects of the study could be reversed. As such, Little Albert was left phobic of all white, furry objects.