Little Albert

It is one of the classic studies in Psychology – famous Behaviourist (John B Watson) demonstrated that an emotional response could be acquired through classical conditioning. His subject was a 9-month old infant called ‘Little Albert’. John B and his assistant Rosalie Rayner placed a cute white laboratory rat in front of the baby and at the same time banged a steel bar with a hammer, creating a noise that scared the baby so that he cried. After a few pairings between the neutral stimulus (rat) and unconditioned stimulus (loud noise), the baby soon acquired a conditioned response (fear) to the previous neural stimulus. And so Little Albert’s name went down in history.

But whatever happened to the baby?It was believed that his mother worked at the hospital in Baltimore where Watson also worked. Some lengthy detectivelittlealbert2 work led researcher Hall Beck to conclude that Little Albert was in fact Douglas Merritte, a baby who sadly died at a young age from hydrocephalus (water on the brain). This suggests that the baby may have had brain damage from birth and challenges the whole foundation of the study (and a lot of subsequent psychology – Michael Mosley did a special programme on Little Albert on Horizon, making the claim for Little Albert’s key role).

But not so fast – people very quickly like to heap scorn on famous figures and John. B. Watson was not a popular man. It turns out that Little Albert may not have been Douglas Merritte. A recent investigation has identified someone else – William Albert Barger. Two Canadian researchers, Russ Powell and Nancy Digdon reported their evidence, finding that their Albert died in 2007. His niece reported that he had a lifelong aversion to animals – family dogs had to be kept in a separate room whenever he visited. So it might appear that the conditioning had a lifelong effect.

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One Comment

  1. Keith E Rice October 7, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    Thanks, Cara. Your blog post sent me scuttling off to look up the latest Digdon, Powell & Harris paper and I’ve updated my web site account based on this.

    Always good to have the latest info on the Albert study. As you well know, the kids are fascinated by the mystery of who Albert was and what happened to him.



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