Fear or No Fear – The Little Albert Experiment

This is the 3rd post in our interesting psychological studies series. In the previous posts, we talked about the following psychological studies:

Ivan Pavlov’s psychology research on classical conditioning – training a dog to respond to what was once a neutral stimulus, and making it a conditioned one, had sparked many an interest in other psychologists who also wanted to conduct psychological studies of their own. One of the more popular yet controversial psychological studies is the Little Albert experiment by John B. Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner.

Objective of the experiment

Watson wanted to conduct the psychology research to support his hypothesis that children had an innate fear that would result in their reactions whenever they heard loud noises. Furthermore, using classical conditioning, he wanted to test if children can also develop the same reaction to a neutral stimulus that he did not fear before.

The Experiment

Watson chose a nine-month old boy named Albert, and performed a series of tests to try and condition the Little Albert’s fears:

Little Albert was exposed to the following items: a white rabbit, a dog, a rat, a monkey, masks, cotton wool, and burning newspaper, among others

  • At this point, Little Albert did not display any aversive reaction towards these items

Little Albert was then placed on a mattress along with a white laboratory rat, which he was allowed to play with

  • Still no fear was being shown by Little Albert at this point, even reaching for it as the rat roamed around him

In succeeding trials, the experimenters would strike a suspended steel bar with a hammer, causing a loud sound – whenever Little Albert would touch the rat

  • Because of the noise, Little Albert responded by showing fear and crying

The pairing of the loud noise and the white rat continued for a few more trials, until such time that the white rat alone would make Little Albert cry

  • Because Little Albert had learned to link the two factors, he would begin crying and feel agitated whenever the rat was around

A few more days after the experiment, Watson also introduced a non-white rabbit to Little Albert

  • Because Little Albert associated the noise not only with the white rat itself but to other furry animals, he also cried and showed fear when the rabbit was presented to him

Shortly after the experiments were conducted, Little Albert was discharged from the hospital. Watson and his team wanted to try and desensitize the child to see if they can un-condition the stimulus and reaction, but unfortunately the failed to due to lack of time.

What The Results Mean

When Watson discussed the results of his experiments with his students, one of them, Mary Cover Jones, was inspired to try and do a reverse of the psychology research that Watson had done. Her study involved a three-year old boy named Peter, who had a fear of white rabbits. Jones presented the rabbit along with Peter’s favorite food several times, until such time that Peter was no longer afraid of the rabbit even if it was the only thing shown to him.

Many have questioned the ethics behind the Little Albert experiment, in which a child who had no fear of furry animals was conditioned to have such adverse reactions without desensitization. The experiment helped establish the guidelines of psychological studies being performed today.

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