The Most Horrible Experiment in History: Little Albert Experiment

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Observing in his field research that fear in humans is something that is "learned" rather than something that humans are born with, behavioral psychologist John B. Watson decided to test his hypothesis in his lab. And his choice of subject was probably the worst one in history: 8 month-old Albert.

1. John Watson's Classical Condtioning Experiment

Everything started when John B. Watson took a deeper look into the experiments carried out by Ivan Pavlov, one of the most prominent psychologists in history, to look at the conditioning processes in dogs. Using the findings in Pavlov's experiment, Watson looked for an answer to the question "Is fear a reflex that is adopted later in life or is it an instinct?" When the behavioral psychologist observed that emotional responses like fear are learned, he decided to test this on a little child.

2. An 8-Month-Old Tot Is Chosen As The Subject

John Watson, who is the founder of the Behavioral Approach, and his assistant Rosalie Rayner, started to observe children in the daycare center at John Hopkins University hospital.  But they needed to do some 'tests' to get certain answers to the questions that they had about 'fear'. Watson and his assistant decided to design a series of evil experiments to do on little Albert for this aim. Albert's mother came to the hospital everyday to sell her breast milk so she could make a living, and Albert would play at the daycare center with the other kids until his mother came to pick him up.

3. The Little Albert Experiment Starts

Before the most inhumane experiment in history starts, some emotional tests are carried out on Albert.  Albert was exposed to objects and animals like a rat, a rabbit, paper in flames, fluffy toys and a mask, which he encounters for the first time. The purpose in that was to see whether he had unconditioned responses to these objects. The result is, Little Albert, who has no concept of fear at the beginning, smiles at everything he sees.

4. Albert Is Exposed To A White Rat

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Albert is taken to an empty room after these seemingly innocent experiments. There is no other thing than a matress in this room. Then letf alone, Albert is exposed to a white lab rat. Albert has no fear of the rat. Quite the opposite. He loves the rat and laughingly reaches for it.

5. The Rat Is Released Into The Room Again But...

The evil part of the experiment starts here because little Albert is ready for the next phase. The rat is released into the room again, but with a little difference this time. Albert is exposed to a very disturbing sound made by striking a steel bar with a hammer. Unfamiliar yet with the sound, little Albert gets scared and starts to cry. After a while, when everything goes back to normal and there is no sound, Albert continues to play with the rat and everytime he touches the rat, he is exposed to the same irritating sound. Reaching for the rat again to play with it, Albert gets the same sound and starts to fear touching the rat.

6. Albert's Fear Is Frozen In His Memory

The experiment is repeated a couple of times in the following days and as a result, Albert gets scared and distressed whenever he sees a furry object, especially a white one. At the end of the experiment, Albert gives the same response when he is presented with a ball of cotton or a white rabbit, although there was no sound. Thinking that they have not done enough and not yet satisfied with the results they got, Watson and his assistant enter the room in furry costumes. The objects Albert is presented with grow, as does his fear of white furry objects. Now, Albert is conditioned and his fear is frozen in his memory.

7. Watson and His Assistant Leave The Hospital

Although this experiment is considered a succesful one to prove classical conditioning, everyone agrees that this is an evil and unethical experiment and is maybe the most inhumane one in history. One thing is for certain, though: Classical conditioning was proved. But the experiment was more than damaging for little Albert. He was uneasy whenever he was left alone. Even worse, the psychologists never attempted therapy for his recovery and instead left the hospital. The experiment triggers lots of negative reactions among the public as well as psychologists, but what is done is done.

8. Albert's Death

Although what little Albert went through remains a mystery in the history of psychology, research into what happened to him by Hall P. Beck pointed to a tragic end. Little Albert's real name was  Douglas Merritte and he turned out to be a child with an unhealthy personality and phobia of white furry objects. He died of hydrocephalia before he turned 7.

9. The Results of The Experiment

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Significant results were achieved at the end of this experiment. Watson suggested that human beings are just passive recipients being led by their environment, and our fears and other behavior that we think of as instincts are nothing but the result of such conditioning. 

Though the experiment provides significant data to show that fear is only a reflex that is learned, the means to achieve this result can never be justified. 

Everything else aside, although individual consent is necessary for someone to participate as a subject in a study, seeing the consent of the mother only as sufficient is completely irrational. Because it was not the mother, but little Albert who had to suffer the consequences of the experiment and it was little Albert who died of distress.

Classical Conditioning: Little Albert Experiment

Do you think Watson is right? Are our fears just results of our conditioning and are we just audiences who are led by our environments?

Yes, we are just audiences in our own lives.
No, we are more than just passive recipients.
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