Little Albert and Classical Conditioning
John B Watson was one of the most notable psychologist scientists of the 20th century. He wrote about applied psychology for academic journals, popular magazines and business publications. He is considered to be the founder of behaviorism.
Watson’s work was based on the experiments of Ivan Pavlov, who had studied the responses of animals to conditioning. Pavlov sustained the theory that the humans and animals react to stimuli in same way. Watson enlarged Pavlov’s belief by taking classical conditioning further on humans.
Watson, in the beginning of his research work, used animals for studying behavior. Later he change his interest in studying human behavior.
In 1920, John Watson and his assistant(wife) Rosalie Rayner conducted an experiment called “Little Albert”.
“Little Albert” experiment is one of the most famous studies in psychology in which he hypothesized that children have three basic emotional reactions: fear, rage, and love.
Watson and his partner was able to demonstrate that emotional responses could be conditioned, or learned. This was a very new concept to the world.
Baby Albert’s mother was a nurse in the Harriet Lane Home for invalid children. Albert was raised in the hospital environment but he developed normally and was emotionally very stabile.
Watson stared to run some tests on little Albert when he was eight months old. First he wanted to determine if a loud sound would cause a fear response in the child.
The study of animals may lead to a deeper understanding of human behaviour when it is not always possible to study humans directly, possibly because: 1. There are moral and ethical reasons that restrict the type of research that can be performed using humans as subjects. In the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights it states in Article one “All Human Beings are born free and equal ...
Watson placed the child in a room with an assistant who stood behind him and made a loud noise by striking a hammer on a steel bar. This was done three times. The first time, Albert was startled and he raised his hands up. The second time, he was quivering and the third time he was scared and cried. He had become afraid of loud noise (UCS – unconditioned stimulus).
Definition: “Unconditioned stimulus (US) in classical condition is the stimulus that elicits an unconditioned response”.( Zimbardo, P., Johnson, R., McCann, V. (2009).
Psychology Core Concepts. (6th Ed.), pp G-17)
A month later, Albert was being put through more tests. He was brusquely introduced to a rabbit, a white rat, a dog, a monkey, masks with and without hair, cotton, wool, etc but he did not show any signs of fear.
After these tests, Watson wanted to identify if a natural response of fear(UCR – unconditioned response), could be conditioned when the loud noise was paired with a white rat or rabbit. Also he wanted to determine if this fear would transfer to other objects and how long this response would last.
Definition: “Unconditioned response( UCR) in classical condition, the response elicited by an unconditional stimulus without prior learning”. ( Zimbardo, P., Johnson, R., McCann, V. (2009).
Psychology Core Concepts. (6th Ed.), pp G-17)
Albert was 11 months old when the procedure started. Firstly, a white rat was introduced to him. When he reached out to touch it, the steel bar was struck. The child fell forward but he didn’t cry. The second time he reached for the rat again and the sound was heard, Albert cried. A week went by before the white rat was showed to him again. He did not reached out to the rat immediately. Albert, slowly reached for the rat but took his hand away before touching it. The rat was presented to him again and this time Albert cried and tried to crawl away(CR – conditioned response), without the loud noise to be heard. He was afraid of the rat because he knew if he would touch it then the loud noise will be heard.
... a loud noise producing fear, thus having conditioned fear of the white rat. The experiment showed that Little Albert generalized his response from furry animals to ... measures how much the participant blinks when presented with a stimuli. If the participant is startled (scared) by something, they will ...
Definition: “Conditioned response(CR) is a response elicited by a previously neutral stimulus that has become associated with the unconditional stimulus”.( Zimbardo, P., Johnson, R., McCann, V. (2009).
Psychology Core Concepts. (6th Ed.), pp G-4)
Watson had conditioned a fear response in little child. After this, Watson wanted to see if this response would transfer over to other objects. The fear response did spread to the other furry objects including, a rabbit, a rat, a dog, a furry coat and a mask of Santa Claus (Generalization process).
Albert withdrew and cried when the Santa Clause mask was presented to him, but he was forced to touch it. Next time when the mask was showed to him, he cried at the sight of it. The same happened with the furry coat, the rat, the rabbit and the dog. Prior to pairing the steel bar with the display of the rat, Albert was not afraid of any of these objects. However, Little Albert’s fear persisted for a month while he remained in the hospital.
Definition: “Stimulus generalization is the extension of learned response to stimuli that are similar to the conditioned stimulus””.( Zimbardo, P., Johnson, R., McCann, V. (2009).
Psychology Core Concepts. (6th Ed.), pp G-16)
Watson wanted to go further with his experiment by trying to “undo” Little Albert’s responses. He proposed few ways in which this might be reached. First way was to habituate Albert to the animals until his fear response are extinguished, and the second way, to recondition Albert’s responses. Watson expected that Albert’s fear of furry animals would extinguish when they wouldn’t be paired with a loud noise anymore. He wanted to pair the animals with candy or toys.
Psychology is a relatively new science, having emerged as a formal discipline only during the 19th century. It, however, came into existence due to the philosophical aim of understanding and explaining the nature of the mind and the soul. Physiology was later integrated into psychology when the latter sought to discover the causes and the cure for mental illness. Historical Roots of Psychology ...
Unfortunately, this experiment was never performed because Little Albert left the hospital and never returned.
Definition: “Extinction, in classical conditioning, is the weakening of a conditioned response in the absence of an unconditioned stimulus”.( Zimbardo, P., Johnson, R., McCann, V. (2009).
Psychology Core Concepts. (6th Ed.), pp G-6)
Watson conclusion was that phobias are most likely conditioned responses. He concluded that phobias were either a fear of the original stimulus or that they had been transferred to other stimuli, as the person grew older. As with Freud, Watson believed that early childhood experiences influenced the adult personality. However, the subsequent studies relieved that, unlike other conditioned responses, fear responses do not tend to extinguish.
The Little Albert experiment raises many ethical concerns and because of this the experiment could not be conducted by today’s standards because it would be unethical.
– The researchers deliberately exposed Albert to psychological harm – causing him distress.
– Continued exposure of the child to frightening stimuli, when it was clear he was distressed.
– Parental consent.
Even though the ”Little Albert” experiment was criticized, it still remains very important in psychology and other disciplines. Also, it was an inspiration for other important researchers from the past and yet continues to impact the direction of psychological investigation today.
Watson, John B. & Rayner, Rosalie. (1920).
Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.
Zimbardo, P., Johnson, R., McCann, V. (2009).
Psychology Core Concepts.
http://www.psychology.about.com, By Kendra Cherry, About.com guide.