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 the 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.