Classical Conditioning and Little Albert

John Watson

John Watson

It's tough for me to write a neutral account of Watson and his research, this guy was a real piece of work -- I will, however, give it my best shot.

In the early 1900's, American psychologist John Watson founded what was to become Behaviorism. Unlike Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism maintains that human thought and emotions are far too subjective for inclusion in any scientific theory of human behavior. Watson felt that only an individual's external behavior could be objectively recorded and measured -- and hence be appropriate for formal study.

Let us limit ourselves to things that can be observed,
and formulate laws concerning only those things.
Now what can we observe? We can observe behavior
--what the organism does or says.

Watson discounted the influence of heredity in favor of learning, creating a psychological model for human behavior that claimed that all human action was the result of learning. In the nature vs. nurture argument, Watson didn't just lean in one direction, he fled to the far extremes and turned his back on the other camp, discounting even the possibility of its validity.

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed,
and my own specified world to bring trhem up in
and I'll guarantee to take any one at random
and train him to become any type of specialist
I might select ... regardless of his talents,
penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations
and race of his ancestors.

In 1920 Watson performed a ground breaking experiment with his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, involving a unique subject for psychological study -- a human infant. The subject -- Albert B. destined to be known popularly as Little Albert -- was an orphan residing at a hospital. Watson and Rayner first evaluated Little Albert at the age of nine months and found the infant to be unusually calm and well behaved. Nothing seemed to disturb or frighten him. Unafraid of a tame rat, rabbit, dog and monkey; he also failed to be perturbed by masks or any other inanimate object. Little Albert wasn't even afraid of fire!

Watson and Rayner did discover one thing that frightened Little Albert though: Extremely loud and abrupt noise. Watson could make Albert fearful by placing a steel bar behind the baby's head and smacking it with a hammer.

Now, think back on Pavlov and his drooling dogs: What Watson set out to prove was that behavior is the end result of learning, and that learning is a classically conditioned response to environmental stimulus.

Two months after their initial visit, Watson and Rayner attempted to condition Little Albert to fear a white rat. Rayner supervised the baby while Albert had the opportunity to play with the rat. Behind the infant stood Watson with his hammer and steel bar. Every time Little Albert reached for the rat, Watson smacked the bar with the hammer. Just as before, the loud noise scared the living daylights out of Little Albert.

Just the sort of fellow you want to have over to entertain at your child's next birthday party, right?

In this first round, Albert experienced two pairings of the white rat and loud noise. A week later, the infant experienced five more pairings. After seven incidents, Little Albert exhibited extreme fear at the presence of the rat alone.

Now, thinking back on Pavlov again, before the experiment, or conditioning:

  • The white rat is a neutral stimulus.
  • The loud noise is an unconditioned stimulus.
  • Albert's fear is the unconditioned response.
  • After conditioning:

  • The white rat becomes a conditioned stimulus.
  • Albert's fear becomes a conditioned reflex.
  • Also, just as with Pavlov's dogs, Watson and Rayner found that stimulus generalization had taken place. Little Albert became fearful of other furry animals, Watson's hair, a sealskin coat, even a bearded Santa Clause mask.

    The result of this experiment? Watson and Rayner became famous overnight. Little Albert was adopted by a family just after completion of the experiment. Later, Watson wrote that even though he believed that Albert's fear would "persist and modify" his personality throughout his life, he could not extinguish the child's conditioned fear because he could not find him.

    Uh huh.

    This experiment was criticized on many grounds. Watson and Rayner made no effort to measure Albert's fear and distress. This was, after all, an experiment designed by a champion for objective analysis of human behavior. The ethics of the experiment are reprehensible.

    And speaking of ethics, there is one more chapter in the Saga of John Watson and Rosalie Rayner that cannot be excluded and have this narrative remain contextually relevant:

    Sex, Scandal and the Advertising Industry: John Watson's Academic Exile

    Now just what, you might ask, does all this have to do with sex-fetishes? Watson demonstrated conclusively that Pavlov's model of behavior and learning applied to humans. Humans could be taught the same sort of learned reflexive behavior as other animals.

    So I ask once again: bells and salivation? Why not quicksand and erections?