Episode 47: The Little Albert Study: What You Know is…Mostly Wrong

MichaelLearning/Memory54 Comments


What happened to Little Albert? If you think you know a lot about the little Albert experiment conducted by John Watson? Well, guess what – you’d be surprised at how much of the story is simply not true. If you’re wondering whatever happened to little Albert, whether the little Albert study created a lasting phobia in a small boy, or even what place this story has in the history of behaviorism, then I suggest you take a listen to this episode of The Psych Files and get the facts on this fascinating part of psychology’s history.

“Little Albert”‘s real identity has been identified! Go to episode 223 to learn more about who  Little Albert really was.

Notes Regarding Little Albert’s “Phobia”

    • When Albert was conditioned again to the rat, 10 days after the initial trials, Albert…

      ..fell over to the left side, got up on all fours and started to crawl away. On this occasion there was no crying but strange to say, as he started away he began to gurgle and coo, even while leaning far over to the left side to avoid the rat…

      – in addition, on this same day he was again conditioned to fear the rabbit, albert’s response was reported as,

      …fear reaction slight. Turned to the left and kept face away from the animal but the reaction was never pronounced.

    • 31 days after being shown the rat, Watson reports that when in the same room as the rat “He allowed the rat to crawl towards him without withdrawing”

    • On the final day of testing when albert was exposed to the rabbit to which he had been conditioned to fear, he did not avoid the rabbit at all. Watson (1920) reports:

      ..after about a minute he [Albert] reached out tentatively and …touched the rabbit’s ear with his right hand…

Objects Albert was supposedly afraid of, but for which there is no evidence:

  • Cats
  • Fur muffs
  • White furry gloves
  • Albert’s aunt (who wore fur)
  • Albert’s mother’s fur coat
  • A teddy bear

Most overlooked facts:

  • The study is not an experiment (an experiment requires at least two levels of an independent variable). It is a pilot study at best.
  • The study had only one subject.
  • The study has never been replicated.

Resources for This Episode on Little Albert

  • Harris, B. (1979). Whatever Happened to Little Albert? American Psychologist, 34 (2), 151-160. Click here to download the article to your desktop.

  • Samuelson , F. (1980). J.B. Watson’s Little Albert, Cyril Burt’s Twins, and the Need for a Critical Science. American Psychologist, 35 (7).

  • Watson, J.B. & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned Emotional Reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14. This article is available online at Christopher Green’s excellent Psych Classics site.

  • Watson’s video of the little albert study is available on YouTube in several versions. Here’s one.

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54 Comments on “Episode 47: The Little Albert Study: What You Know is…Mostly Wrong”

  1. Hi,
    Why did the APA give Watson an award in 1957. Did they not recognize how unethical and skewed his work was with the Albert study?

    Thanks, Janet

  2. Well, according to behavioral theory, you’d have to present Albert with the white objects but not strike a bar or make any annoying noises behind him. Do this repeatedly and then white things will return to being normal stimuli. Pavlov called it simply “extinction”.

  3. I’m afraid that your bibliography confuses Franz Samelson with someone named Samuelson (the economist?).

  4. Heard the unfortunate baby was sickly and died at the age of 6 to hydrocephalus! 🙁

  5. Michael,
    I believe that Roger is correct. According to http://www.apa.org, Little Albert, real name Douglas Merritte, died at age 6 from hydrocephalus. Thanks again for the interesting lectures.

  6. Did John Watson believe that fear could ONLY be displayed as an “Unconditioned Response” after an “Unconditioned Stimulus” of a loud noise?

    Or in other words, all other fear reactions were learned?

  7. Vee: I don’t know if I would use “terrified” to describe “Albert”‘s reaction, that’s sounds too strong. Perhaps “upset” or “scared” would be a better description of his emotional reaction.

  8. this article is confusing me. all of the others say he was terrified but i found three that said he wasnt. how do you know which one is true?

  9. According to an American Psychologist report, “Little Albert” whose real name was Douglass Merrite, “died at the age of six on May 10, 1925 of hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid in his brain”.

    Source: Beck, H. P., Levinson, S., & Irons, G. (2009). Finding little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson’s infant laboratory. American Psychologist, Vol 64(7), 605-614.

  10. Michael,

    This is my first year of psychology as well and I have to tell you , after looking at a few of your episodes regarding personality and this one about baby Albert, I am really impressed. This had helped me A lot especially with your episode on Dr Buss and Evolutionary Psychology!
    THANK YOU!!!!

  11. Wow, this experiment blew my mind, who knew mapquest was available in 1919. And i love how you just stole their trunk and took their photo and then stalked him down. It was all very interesting. Thank you for your creepy experiment.

  12. You’re right Paul. His mother removed Albert from the laboratory before the planned extinction of the fear could take place.

  13. I seem to recall reading that Watson had in fact planned to desensitize (in today’s terms) little Albert, but the child was withdrawn from the study before Watson was able to do so.

  14. According to Watson’ paper, he described that:

    5. The rat. He allowed the rat to crawl towards him without withdrawing. He sat very still and fixated it intently. Rat then touched his hand. Albert withdrew it immediately, then leaned back as far as possible but did not cry. When the rat was placed on his arm he withdrew his body and began to fret, nodding his head. The rat was then allowed to crawl against his chest. He first began to fret and then covered his eyes with both hands

    I think Albert was still feared by the rat after 31 days.

    Micheal wrote:

    31 days after being shown the rat, Watson reports that when in the same room as the rat “He allowed the rat to crawl towards him without withdrawing”

    Readers may be misunderstood, that Albert didn’t fear the rat completely, by his fragmented quote.

  15. I believe that the disease that Albert died from (hydrocephalus) was something he was born with. It’s not something that could have been caused by Watson’s study.

    From Wikipedia, “Pediatric hydrocephalus affects one in every 500 live births, making it one of the most common developmental disabilities, more common than Down syndrome or deafness It is the leading cause of brain surgery for children in the United States. There are over 180 different causes of the condition, one of the most common acquired etiologies being brain hemorrhage associated with premature birth. Pediatric hydrocephalus may also be a heritable condition, and mainly affects males.”

  16. wow I can not believe this, I went on the web site that says that little albert died at age of 6 and it says that he died for having fluid on his brain, I personally think that the experiment might’ve cause that. It makes me sick that anyone would ever do that to a baby.

  17. nchooo am sure litlle albert would have appriciated that song it’s so sweet:)

  18. Just what I was looking for Michael,
    my Prof just gave us the Little Albert topic.

  19. i just love listening to you! your so interesting in the topics you chose!!! 🙂

  20. For anyone interested, this is what really happened to Little Albert:

    ‘The question of what happened to Little Albert has long been one of psychology’s mysteries. Watson and Raynor were unable to attempt to eliminate the boy’s conditioned fear because he moved with his mother shortly after the experiment ended. Some envisioned the boy growing into a man with a strange phobia of white, furry objects.
    Recently, however, the true identity and fate of the boy known as Little Albert was discovered. As reported in American Psychologist, a seven-year search led by psychologist Hall P. Beck led to the discovery. After tracking down the location of the original experiments and the real identity of the boy’s mother, it was discovered that Little Albert was actually a boy named Douglas Merritte.
    The story does not have a happy ending, however. Douglas died at the age of six on May 10, 1925 of hydrocephalus, a build up of fluid in his brain. “Our search of seven years was longer than the little boy’s life,” Beck wrote of the discovery.’

    I found this information in one of my psychology text books.

  21. I also heard that he died at a young age can you verify this from the previous post by the website http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/64/7/605/. Did you find anything other than what this site states? I am very interested as I used to feel Watson was completely immoral but now view him as an ethical scientist, although I still debate motive for the experiment. Thanks Shannon

  22. I hope the textbooks will get updated on the true story of Albert soon. There’s the information I report in this episode as well as episode 114 in which i talk about how they’ve identified “Albert’s” real identity.

  23. Thank you for this. You were right about the textbook problem. They spend a lot of time on how to make a good experiment and then they talk about the Little Albert EXPERIMENT.

    In my textbook they said this:
    “Little Albert’s newfound fear did not stop with the innocent rat. It spread, or generalized to objects similar in appearance to the rat, such as a rabbit or a fur coat. Because of his experiences with the rat and steel bars, Albert learned to fear other objects that were white and furry.” …… “Somewhere out there may be an older man who cringes at the sight of not only rats but also of little girls wearing fluffy sweaters, of small dogs, or maybe even of Santa Claus’s beard.”

    I think they need to get their info straight. Even in my own research, (I am doing a paper on Watson) I have found inaccuracies in my textbook.

  24. Roger,

    Thanks for the link. I remember hearing about this article but never got around to downloading it from our library to read. I just got a copy and will give it a look. Looks really interesting.

  25. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  26. Even though the study might not affected the boy, it’s was a bad idea to use a child in this experiment.

  27. No problem Latoya. If this is your first year of studying psychology then you’ve got a lot of interesting reading/listening ahead of you! Enjoy.

  28. This is my first year studying Psychology, so this is very exciting to me to be learning something that i’m studying. I didnt expect little Albert to be 89 yrs. old. Thank you for your experiment or as you say a pilot study.

  29. Hi Michael,

    Great show! This is my first year studying Psychology and I find the contents are very interesting and relevant. However, I have difficulties remembering the terms/definitions for my examination that comprise of about 7 modules/chapters. While preparing for my exam, I chance upon this question.

    Mary is trying to encourage ABC school to Go Green. She feels that the solution would be to encourage more staff and students to recycle more. Using the principles of Operant Conditioning, describe the type of operant conditioning Mary can use and explain how Mary can encourage ABC to recycle.

    This is my answer but I am not sure if am on the right track. Could you assist me please?

    Operant conditioning is a form of learning in which responses come to be controlled by their consequences.
    The type of operant conditioning Mary can use would be positive and negative reinforcement.
    Positive reinforcement strengthens a behaviour, in this case encouraging ABC’s staff and students to recycle more, as it is followed by the presentation a rewarding stimulus.
    The rewarding stimulus could be sweets or praises given out in a variable interval to people who recycle. Moreover, she can also hold a inter-class recycling competition which awards the class that recycle the most with prizes and gifts.
    Next, negative reinforcement strengthens a behaviour, in this case encouraging ABC’s staff and students to recycle move, as it is followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus.
    The aversive or unpleasant stimulus could be less work in the form of homework or marking for students and staff who recycle.

    Thank you.
    Best wishes,

  30. Have you seen Prince Albert in a can?
    Then let him out! Sorry, couldn’t resist.
    I heard they do this therapy to Guantanamo detainees so they are averse to (terribalism).

  31. Well, even though it doesn’t look like Albert suffered any long term consequences from the study, Watson should still have taken some time to make sure that Albert was “deconditioned” (by pairing white rats with perhaps a soothing sound).

  32. The Little Albert Study: What You Know is…Mostly Wrong
    Thank you so much for this. It helped me a lot in psychology class, but i have a question :
    Cna you explain a little bit how Watson study violates ethical guidelines?.

  33. Ashley,

    Thanks for leaving the comment about the show. Glad this episode helped! It was a fun one to do.


  34. hey Micheal my name is Ashley, im in my last year of psychology in northern ireland. Im actually doing a piece of coursework on little albert and you’ve cleared alot of things up for me thanks for the help!


    P.S love the show 🙂

  35. Does anyone know what happened to little albert after the experiment and as an adult?

  36. ahhaha, well, it just rhymed with decayed lol
    i HOPE he isn’t still afraid of white fluffy things….gah
    that would be horrible..
    thankyou though
    means a lot

    peace x

  37. I do like it. Clearly you gave this some thought. The only thought I had is that you say that “I will always be afraid” and the research shows that “little Albert” was probably not harmed at all by the research and the effects were small and probably not long lasting.

    Otherwise I like the rhyme.

  38. i made a song for him:
    Ethical, ethical, ethical unethical
    Ethical, ethical, ethical unethical

    Little Albert, Little Albert
    Why are you so afraid?
    Little Albert, Little Albert
    You're youth has been decayed
    Little Albert, Little Albert
    Just put on a brave face
    Little Albert, Little Albert
    Stay away from the rat race


    White and fluffy
    Cute and cuddly
    Just a baby
    But going crazy
    Someone help me
    Get me out of this misery
    Im forsaken
    My security blanket's been taken

    Oh Ah Oh

    Little Albert, Little Albert
    Why are you so afraid?
    Little Albert, Little Albert
    You're youth has been decayed
    Little Albert, Little Albert
    Just put on a brave face
    Little Albert, Little Albert
    Stay away from the rat race

    Crazy, crazy
    Taking down notes
    Now they're making votes
    When will my mother
    Take me home
    I will always be afraid.

    Repeat twice

    Ethical, ethical, ethical unethical
    I will always be afraid

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