All The Controversies Surrounding The Little Albert Experiment

In 1920, behaviorist John B. Watson and his eventual wife, Rosalie Rayner - then a graduate student studying under him - set out to prove they could condition a child's feelings. Specifically, they wanted to demonstrate their power to engender a phobia within a living being. Their experiment was based on Pavlov’s conditioning of dogs, which implemented a repetitive action in order to elicit a desired response. 

While Watson and Rayner did technically accomplish their goal, they also clearly yet inadvertently demonstrated the need for ethics in psychological studies. Their actions against their subject, a baby known as “Little Albert,” are now understood to have been abhorrent -- riddled with ethical issues -- and due to the researchers' carelessness, determining the amount of damage they inflicted is practically impossible.


  • The Experiment Conditioned 'Little Albert' To Fear Any Furry, White Object

    The Experiment Conditioned 'Little Albert' To Fear Any Furry, White Object
    Photo: Galiaoffri / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    John B. Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, instilled a genuine and debilitating fear of white, furry objects in their subject, a child known as "Little Albert." Watson wrote that he conditioned the child by creating a loud noise whenever Albert reached out to touch a white rat, leading the boy to become fearful of anything that looked remotely similar to the animal.

    Watson further wrote that the baby became distressed whenever he saw a rabbit, a dog, or a rudimentary Santa Claus mask with a cotton-ball beard. As far as Watson could determine, the boy's fear only extended to objects that were both furry and white.

  • No Objective Parameters Were Imposed To Evaluate Albert's Reactions

    A scientific experiment should record objective observations and employ multiple subjects as a control group. Essentially, other scientists should be able to step into the laboratory and find similar results. Rather than employing these experimentation methods, Watson and Rayner carried out their experiment on only one child without any means to objectively evaluate his reactions.

    In the experiment, Watson and Raynor introduced Albert to a small white rat. Once Albert was comfortable with the animal and began to reach out for it, Watson struck a metal bar with a hammer, creating a loud noise. Watson continued this cycle until Albert was not only afraid to reach out for the creature, but was also afraid of the rat itself. 

    Watson and Rayner concluded that they could train Albert to fear the rat by making noise, though this conclusion was far from objective.

  • Researchers Failed To Reverse Albert's Conditioning Once The Experiment Ended

    Once Watson and Rayner's experiment concluded, they failed to reverse any of the psychological damage they inflicted upon Albert. Supposedly, the duo didn't have time to extinguish the child's fears because Albert's mother left town the moment the study was finished. 

    Rather than reaching out to Albert's mother, Watson and Rayner assured their study's readers that Albert would grow out of his fear thanks to his time in the "rough and tumble" world.

  • Watson May Have Known About And Hid Albert's Poor Health

    Watson May Have Known About And Hid Albert's Poor Health
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    According to Watson, the child used in the Little Albert experiment was a normal, docile child who could represent the "children of the world." Watson wrote in 1920:

    Albert's life was normal: he was healthy from birth and one of the best developed youngsters ever brought to the hospital, weighing 21 pounds at nine months of age. He was on the whole stolid and unemotional. His stability was one of the principal reasons for using him as a subject in this test. We felt that we could do him relatively little harm by carrying out such experiments as those outlined below.

    Albert likely wasn't as healthy as Watson claimed - he may have even been mentally impaired. Modern researchers debate whether or not Watson knew about Albert's possible impairment, although some believe he actually sought out a child with an infirmity.