The Little Albert Experiment (Summary)

The Little Albert Experiment is a famous psychology study on the effects of behavioral conditioning. Conducted by John B. Watson and his assistant, graduate student, Rosalie Raynor, the experiment used the results from research carried out on dogs by Ivan Pavlov—and took it one step further.

What was the Little Albert Experiment?

Watson used Pavlov’s research and designed an experiment to see if emotional responses could be classically conditioned in humans. Watson wanted to see if the fearful reaction he had previously observed when children were exposed to loud noises was something that could be conditioned in response to an unrelated stimulus; in other words, something the child would not normally fear.

Who was little Albert?

Little Albert was the subject of Watson’s experiment. Many of the facts of the experiment are somewhat sketchy and over the years there have been conflicting reports as to whom Little Albert actually was, but it is generally believed that he was a 9 month old baby boy born and raised in a home for Invalid Children.

At 8 months old, Watson tested the child to see if he showed a fear response to a loud noise. Initially the child was startled, but not afraid, but by the time he heard the loud noise for the third time, he was extremely frightened. For the next baseline stage of the experiment, Watson introduced a series of random objects to the boy: a white rat, a monkey, a rabbit, burning newspapers, cotton wool, plus others. At this point the boy was unafraid of the objects.

Next, Watson introduced the white rat to the child. Initially he was happy to play with the rat and showed no fear, but in subsequent tests, each time the child reached out to touch the rat, he heard a loud noise. Before long the child exhibited a fear response and became extremely distressed whenever he was exposed to the white rat, even when he heard no loud noise. From this, Watson concluded the child had been conditioned to feel an emotional response (fear) to a neutral stimulus.

What were the further findings of the Little Albert Experiment?

Having successfully conditioned a fear response in the child, Watson was keen to see if the same response could be transferred to other inanimate objects. When presented with the feared rat, the child was also introduced to other objects. Over time, the child also showed fear when exposed to a wide range of similar furry objects, including a rabbit, a fluffy dog, a seal skin coat, and a Santa Claus mask with a beard made from white cotton wool balls.

What happened after the Little Albert Experiment?

Although Watson had intended to see if it was possible to desensitize the child to his conditioned response of fear towards furry objects, unfortunately, for reasons unknown, the mother took the boy away and the experiment was discontinued.

What were the ethical criticisms made of the Little Albert Experiment?

There is little doubt that the Little Albert Experiment would not be allowed to take place today due to the young age of the subject and the immorality of causing unnecessary distress for the purposes of psychological research. However, despite the shady ethics of the experiment, Watson’s Little Albert research highlighted some very important findings in the field of behavioral science and today’s counter conditioning therapy in the treatment of phobias owes a great deal to the early work of Watson and his associates.

You can watch the video about the experiment below:

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