What Ever Happened to Little Albert?

Probably the most famous infant subject (apart from the baby Jesus) has finally been tracked down according to an article in the latest edition of American Psychologist. In what must be one of the most notorious psychological studies ever conducted, American behaviourist psychologist John B. Watson and his assistant Rosalie Raynor presented a nine-month-old baby, ‘Little Albert,’ with a white lab rat. At first fear_not_01the baby showed no fear, but then Watson sneaked up behind the infant and startled him with a loud bang by striking a hammer on a metal bar. Naturally, this startled Little Albert, and he cried. Every time Watson and Raynor presented the rat, they clanged the hammer to frighten the poor child. Very soon, the sight of the rat alone was enough to reduce Little Albert to a shaking bundle of nerves. He had learned to fear the sight of a rat. Little Albert soon became fearful of a number of similar objects that Watson and Raynor presented to him. Not too surprising considering that, whenever these two adults appeared, they seemed hell-bent on making his life a misery. Rabbits, dogs, a sealskin coat, and even a Santa Claus mask soon became sources of sheer terror for the poor child. Only by crawling away could Little Albert get some comfort and relief. He had become phobic to objects that had not previously upset him. Why did Watson and Raynor inflict such cruelty? – to prove that phobias could be acquired by associative learning.

What ever happened to Little Albert? Psychologist Hall Beck set out to track down the whereabouts of the unfortunate infant. Soon after the experiments, Little Albert and his mother moved away from John Hopkins and disappeared. By tracking down financial records Beck found out that he was most likely to be the illegitimate son of the campus nurse, Arvilla Merritte, who had a boy called, Douglas. Beck managed to trace the family and obtain photographs of the infant boy. Although blurry, FBI forensics made a positive match between Douglas and the photographs of Little Albert taken at John Hopkins.

However, the end of the story is somewhat tragic as Douglas died aged 6 years of age after developing hydrocephalus. In finishing the article Beck ends with a moving personal testimony,

None of the folktales we encountered during our inquiry had a factual basis. There is no evidence that the baby’s mother was “outraged” at her son’s treatment or that Douglas’s phobia proved resistant to extinction. Douglas was never deconditioned, and he was not adopted by a family north of Baltimore.

Nor was he ever an old man. Our search of seven years was longer than the little boy’s life. I laid flowers on the grave of my longtime “companion,” turned, and simultaneously felt a great peace and profound loneliness.

18 Comments

Filed under General Thoughts, In the News

18 responses to “What Ever Happened to Little Albert?

  1. “Little Albert” was a baby, nearly ninety years ago,
    And a healthy, mild-mannered one, at that,
    His demeanor was the reason he was chosen for the task
    Of developing a phobia to rat

    John B. Watson was the founder of Behaviorism, and
    Was, by all accounts, a bastard through and through.
    When presented with a baby, unemotional and strong,
    John B. Watson knew exactly what to do.

    [...]

    http://digitalcuttlefish.blogspot.com/2009/10/finding-little-albert.html

  2. an actual behaviorist

    “Little Albert soon became fearful of a number of similar objects that Watson and Raynor presented to him. Not too surprising considering that, whenever these two adults appeared, they seemed hell-bent on making his life a misery. Rabbits, dogs, a sealskin coat, and even a Santa Claus mask soon became sources of sheer terror for the poor child. Only by crawling away could Little Albert get some comfort and relief. He had become phobic to objects that had not previously upset him. ”

    Have you seen the Little Albert films? The evidence for generalization, in particular, seems very very thin to me. Sure, Watson claimed generalization, but it *really* did not look that traumatic to me, despite Watson shoving the new stimuli right in Albert’s face. (of course, this does not get Watson off the hook for being unethical–it adds inflating his findings, and keeps the *attempt* at scaring the bejeebers out of Little Albert.)

    • brucehood

      Yes, I can’t speak with much authority here other than what Watson claimed. There again he did say alot of things that were not true,
      “Honest, I am not having an affair with my graduate student!”

      • an actual behaviorist

        Rosie Raynor (the grad student) was the love of his life, and his intellectual partner and equal as well as his sexual partner. The story on that one reads like a romance novel, with Mrs. Watson feigning illness at the Raynor residence so that she could be taken in and allowed to rest in Rosie’s room… where she searched for and found her husband’s love letters (which read like the rest of his writing, sadly). She gave them to her brother, a newspaper editor (if memory serves–I know he was a newsie in some manner) who threatened John B. with publication if he did not leave Rosie.

        Watson chose Rosie over his professorship, over his journal editorship, over his academic career. They married, and continued to write popular articles on child-rearing and other topics, and did quite well for themselves. I get the feeling that he was not a great dad by our standards, but I don’t think there was much admirable about the man personally other than his passion for his science (which Rosie shared). That much, however, I do very much admire him for, even if I would never hold him up as an ideal. (That, and his science was eclipsed by Skinner–I do wonder if Watson, empiricist that he was, would have been pleased to see his view overtaken by a more elegant behaviorism; I hope he would be proud rather than envious.)

      • brucehood

        I bow to your obvious expertise here. As always, stories do get distorted and re-interpreted. Society all to easily passes judgment and comment and JB Watson has always got a bad rap – probably because he actually left his wife. Who knows how many had continued to keep such affairs private? I guess I am guilty of perpetuating the Watson story… but it does sound like a good screen play!

  3. Steve Page

    An interesting read, Bruce – many thanks.

  4. The story of Little Albert has always bothered me, just like the baby in the box story. What researchers used to be able to do before IRB panels . . . Geez.

    I’d be afraid of everything too if someone did that to me, child or no child. Poor lost little boy.

    • brucehood

      Well the baby in the box is an urban myth… see the discussion of BF Skinner and his daughter in the book. It was an air-conditioned crib.

      • Really? I had a major argument with one of my students that it had never happened, and he was a psych major who claimed that it was definitely real. I bowed to him because I have only taken three psych courses, so I thought that he had to know what he was talking about. That’s what I get for listening to a student and not my own intellect. I never bothered to do any follow-up, though, which is my own fault.

        And for some reason, when I read your book, I did not make the connection. My brain has been too fried from my anti-migraine medications. Thanks for clarifying.

  5. GypsyRain

    Well, I am taking a psych class right now and we were discussing the issue of Little Albert, and I have been wondering what happened to him. it is sad that he died at the age of 6; perhaps his mother was not well-equipped to take care of him as well as she wanted to, given that she moved away. Sad story, and I would not let anyone scare my children for anything.

  6. Yes, yes, poor little traumatised Albert. But what about the rat? Did the rat become phobic to children? Did it learn to associate Albert with the loud noise? was it ever ‘deconditioned’
    And what was its name anyway.
    Scientests never think about these things
    see..
    http://reverendhellfire.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/muzak-meditation-mind-control-madness/
    for further thoughts.

  7. Carol

    Why should the personal life of a man, hinder his brilliancy in his professional field? Truth is Watson lost credit because of his personal life, people all hell bent over the personal life of others, when it is their accomplishments they should be focused on. Great Read!

  8. Anonymous

    I have to write an essay on this story. And I can’t seem to grasp the concept of why anyone in their right mind would do this to a poor innocent child. Why anyone would is totally beyond me. I am sorry but that is just cruel and unusual punishment. If anyone today did that they would be in jail for child abuse.

  9. i think that was just cure for them to do to him knowing he had hydrocephalus fluid in his brain. they deserve to got o hell !

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