History of Psychology

Ep 223: Little Albert’s Real Identity – Time to Rewrite the Textbooks

[This] dispute … has been settled to the satisfaction of all neutral observers from journal editors to manuscript reviewers to … textbook authors who have seen our articles. The argument is settled…..I would turn to the question of why it took the field of psychology 5+ years to get this sorted out.”


What was the name of that baby in John Watson‘s famous videos in which he attempts to demonstrate that fears can be acquired through conditioning (pairing a loud noise with a furry animal)? A few years ago we were presented with information indicating that a boy named Douglas Merrite was the true identity of “Little Albert“. The data looked pretty convincing at that time. However, a few pieces of that data simply did not fit together for researchers Nancy Digdon, Russell Powell and Ben Harris.


    • Digdon, N., Powell, R. A., Harris, B. (2014). Little Albert’s alleged neurological impairment: Watson, Rayner and historical revision. History of Psychology, 17, 313-324.
    • Powell, R. A., Digdon, N., Harris, B., & Smithson, C. (2014). Correcting the record on Watson and Rayner’s Little Albert: Albert Barger as ‘Psychology’s lost boy’. American Psychologist, 69, 600-611.

After another lengthy search into the past, these researchers determined that another child fits the description and the facts of who “Little Albert” really was and that boy’s name is William Albert Barger. As is often true in life, the simple facts require fewer leaps in logic and these facts make the conclusion that William Albert Barger is “Little Albert” inescapable.

Key Facts in Favor of William Albert Barger as “Little Albert”

    • Was the son of Pearl Barger, one of 3 mothers working at John’s Hopkins during the time of the “Albert” study (Watson stated that “Albert’s” mother was employed by John’s Hopkins at the time of the study)
    • William Albert was born during the two week period that Watson’s data indicate Little Albert was born
    • Was referred to by his family by his middle name
    • Was approximately the same body weight as “Albert’s” reported body weight at the time of the study (The other candidate for Albert’s identity – Douglas Merritte – was approx six pounds under “Albert’s” reported weight
    • Sight and mobility were normal – as were “Albert’s”. Douglas Merritte had significant sight and mobility impairments due to hydrocephalus condition

In this episode I lay out some of these facts and I think you’ll be convinced as well. Unfortunately, William Albert Barger died in 2007 so researchers weren’t able to talk with him. However, it appears from what was learned from his relatives that he lead a full and rewarding life.



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