The infamous “Little Albert” experiment was conducted in 1920 by John B Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner at Johns Hopkins University. Watson wanted to further understand “classical conditioning” and see whether he could condition a child to at first like an object and then be terrified of it due to some sort of negative association such as a loud noise or a scary image.
The best example of classical conditioning was introduced a few years earlier by Ian Pavlov and his famous dog experiment. Here he conditioned the dogs to salivate every time they heard a bell since they associated the bell with food. Watson decided to see if such an association was possible with human beings, and more specifically infant children.
Little Albert was chosen at the age of nine months and was exposed to various stimuli ranging from white rats and rabbits to masks and monkeys, all without any sign of fear. Two months later, Watson exposed Little Albert to the same white rat and white rabbit but every time the boy touched the animal, Watson would make a loud sound with a hammer and bell. Little Albert quickly associated touching the rat with the loud noise and refused to come near it, crying every time the rat was placed in front of him. Watson later wrote in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that “Introduction of a loud sound (unconditioned stimulus) resulted in fear (unconditioned response), a natural response. Introduction of a rat (neutral stimulus) paired with the loud sound (unconditioned stimulus) resulted in fear (unconditioned response). And finally successive introductions of a rat (conditioned stimulus) resulted in fear (conditioned response). Here, learning is demonstrated.”
In the end, Watson was able to prove that classical conditioning was in fact possible for humans, especially young children. Furthermore, the stimulus was so strong that anything resembling a white rat such as a white puppy, seal skin coat, or even Santa’s beard would engender the negative response from Little Albert. Unfortunately, Little Albert was discharged before Watson was able to desensitize him from this negative stimulus and as a result was later labeled highly unethical by the American Psychological Association, not least for using an infant in an experiment that proved detrimental to his medical health.
In addition to failing to desensitize Albert, Watson is also criticized for breaking other notable ethical guidelines, most importantly not getting consent from the boy’s mother. Now days even using fear without first warning the subject is illegal especially with minors who are susceptible to mental disorders. Despite the blatant disregard for ethics, the “Little Albert” experiment is still cited today as one of the first examples of classical conditioning for human beings. To this day, it is still used as the foundation for numerous studies ranging from juvenile delinquency to disciplining children in school.