After we wrote about the classical Milgram Experiment earlier this week, we present to you with another classical experiment in the world of psychology. Little Albert Experiment tries to describe human fear and find its origin. Our article today is written by Dr. Huda Ashkar*. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more articles; or subscribe to our new letter on the right hand-side of the screen.
Have you ever encountered something and felt an overwhelming sense of danger that made you pull away and hide? An animal, a sound or a picture that sends a chill down your spine? Well, you have experienced an emotional response that we normally refer to as (Fear), but what is fear? Is it an innate emotion? or Is it a learned psychological response?
In 1920, an experiment was conducted in Johns Hopkins University by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner to determine if we are indeed born with the sense of fear, or if it’s acquired as a part of classical conditioning. This experiment was called (The Little Albert Experiment)
(Little Albert), the subject of our experiment, was a 9 months baby boy, born to a nurse in the hospital where this experiment took place. The aim was very simple: try to induce fear through classical conditioning and it had 4 stages:
1) Neutral Stimulus: Albert was exposed to a bunch of different animals and materials (a monkey, a rabbit, burning newspaper, a cotton ball, a white rat) and the child showed no signs of fear whatsoever. Later, the baby was exposed to the white lab rat alone and again, showed no signs of fear or hesitation in touching the rat.
2) Unconditioned Stimulus: the experiment was repeated and Albert was introduced to the rat again, only this time, every time Albert would touch the rat, Watson would hit a metal pipe with a hammer, emitting a very loud noise and causing the child to cry. This was repeated several more times.
3) Conditioned Stimulus: this time Albert was introduced to the white rat again with no accompanying noises, and even though the noise was absent, Albert still cried and showed signs of distress whenever the rat was let into the room.
Watson and Rayner wrote: “The instant the rat was shown, the baby began to cry. Almost instantly he turned sharply to the left, fell over on [his] left side, raised himself on all fours and began to crawl away so rapidly that he was caught with difficulty before reaching the edge of the table.“
4) Stimulus Generalization: after observing a clear fear response from the rat, he was exposed to other white objects as well, including Raynor’s fur coat. The child showed the same signs of fear and distress… More after the video
Watson and Rayner’s 31 day experiment concluded that fear-amongst other emotions- can be influenced by classical conditioning, meaning that we were actually born without these emotions, but the constant environmental stimuli causes us to react the way we do.
The Little Albert Experiment generated a great deal of criticism for the ethics of conduction, it hasn’t been repeated since then because of the controversy it spiked [Editor: Science ethics questions performing an experiment that strikes fear on an infant]. There have been reports that the child was not followed up after the experiment had finished. In 2012, “Little Albert” was revealed to be a child born to a wet-nurse (Arvilla Merritte) who worked at Johns Hopkins at the time, his real name was (Douglas Merritte). Reviews of the Johns Hopkins records showed that Douglas had died at the age of 6 in 1925.
However, in spite of the critique it is still deemed one of the classic experiments in psychology that had opened the gate towards studying “behaviourism”. If you liked this article please leave a comment below, share it on Twitter and Facebook.
Dr. Huda Ashkar is a recent med-school graduate from King Abdulaziz university. She has an interest in biology, psychology and sociology.