Experiment: Little Albert

Baby crying next to a white rat


The Little Albert experiment, although famous and important, would never have been approved if the idea was presented today. I’m not going to get into the whole ethical debate this experiment inevitably elicits. However, at the end of this post there is a nifty poll where you can decide if this study was ethical or not.

It all started in 1920 when John  B. Watson wanted to prove that fear was a learned behavior….what better way to test this than to terrify a child?

The Study

Little Albert was 9 months old and was the son of an employee of Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She also lived on campus and worked as a wet nurse (i.e., a caregiver who breast feeds another woman’s child) at the hospital. He was chosen for one main reason: he was emotionally stable. Experimenters exposed Little Albert to a myriad of things he had never experienced before to gather a baseline of his reactions. Some of the neutral things he was presented with was a white rabbit, a rat, a dog, a monkey, masks with and without hair, cotton wool and burning newspapers; he showed no fear (Wikipedia). Then the trials began. The experimenters placed Little Albert on a mattress. Then, they placed the white rat next to him. At first, he was curious and reached out to touch it. But, as soon as the infant touched the rat, the experimenters would make an obnoxiously loud sound by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer. Like a normal human, Little Albert was startled and, like a normal baby, he cried. In scientific terms, the child’s fear-based reaction to the loud noise was an unconditioned response. Nobody conditioned or forced the child to be frightened by the loud noise. The experimenters repeated this process several times.

The Result

Flow chart of Little Alberts condtion

(click picture to magnify)

As the experiment went on, Little Albert started to show signs of fear and anxiety by just seeing the rat in the room. He would cry, try to move away and try to not look at the animal in front of him. Little Albert, as psychologists hoped, had associated his fear response with the rat. The once neutral stimulus was associated with the unconditioned response (i.e.,fear) by being repeatedly exposed to the unconditioned stimulus (i.e., the loud noise). The rat now becomes a conditioned stimulus that elicits a conditioned response of fear. Check out the flow chart to your right. It’s a great chart of experiment from start to finish.

Watson had intentions of trying to reverse these effects by presenting positive stimuli with the white rat, but he did not have time. Little Albert was leaving.

An important finding that this study shines light on is that nurture takes a large part of who we are. Since fear can be learned, this means that biology isn’t 100% everything. Your environment, your experiences, impact the way you act, feel and think.

Although I wont be jumping into the ethical debate of this study, that doesn’t mean you can’t– take the poll!


Posted on October 11, 2013, in Experiments. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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