The Little Albert Experiment

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

Published on June 3rd, 2021

The Little Albert Experiment

The Little Albert experiment was performed in the early 1900s by Doctor John B. Watson. Dr. Watson was an American psychologist with a focus on human behavior. Watson was inspired by Doctor Ivan Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning. He wanted to understand the science of human learning and the way action and consequence affected a person. From Pavlov’s research, we learn that classical conditioning can work on animals. Watson sought to find out if the same concept worked on humans.

John B. Watson
John B. Watson

Watson intended to apply Pavlov’s Dog experiments to human behavior. After extensive research on Pavlov’s findings, Watson developed the Little Albert study. This study was intended to test the theory of classical conditioning on a young child.

Pavlov’s Theory Of Classical Conditioning

Pavlov developed the theory of classical conditioning as a motivator for behavior. He created the concept based on studies he performed with dogs. Pavlov accidentally stumbled upon a behavioral pattern when initially performing a study on digestion. While performing a study on the dog’s digestive system, he noticed that the dog would salivate when it thought it was about to be fed.

As he looked more deeply into this observation, Pavlov noted the dog would salivate when smelling food. Pavlov then started to ring a bell before bringing food to the dog. When he did this, the dog would start salivating when it heard the bell.

Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Pavlov

Pavlov discovered that this was because the dog learned that when the bell rang, he would be fed. The dog made the connection between the bell ringing and eating, which caused the dog to salivate.

Pavlov organized this discovery as follows:

  • Unconditioned Stimulus. Dog Food
  • Unconditioned Response. Salivation
  • Conditioned Stimulus (Stimulus he trained the dog to associate with food). Bell
  • Conditioned Response (Response to conditioned stimulus). Salivation

Classical Conditioning

Little Albert

Watson intended to apply classical conditioning to human behavior. He conducted the Little Albert experiment. This experiment applied classical conditioning to human behavior. It factored in how the environment affects learned behavior. Using an experimental design that was similar to Pavlov’s experiment, Watson conducted the study to create a conditioned fear in a child.

The test subject for this experiment was an infant named Albert. The experiment aimed to condition Albert to be afraid of a white rat. To cause Albert to develop this fear, Watson applied the concept of classical conditioning to the boy’s experience of what happens when he sees a white rat.

Before the experiment began, Watson confirmed that Albert did not have any previous fear or aversion to a white rat. He did so by presenting the rat to him and observing any reaction. Albert did not show interest or fear in the white rat. This implied that he did not have any reason to fear or avoid the rat before the experiment began.

The next step in the Little Albert experiment was to condition Albert to expect a loud and startling bang when he was presented with a white rat. Each time Albert was shown the rat, a loud bang played that scared Albert.

After repeated trials, Albert developed a fear of white rats. This was because Albert anticipated being startled by a loud bang each time he saw the rat.

The breakdown of the conditioning was as follows:

  • Unconditioned Stimulus. The loud bang startled Albert when it was sounded.
  • Unconditioned Response. Fear and crying in reaction to being startled.
  • Conditioned Stimulus. The white rat would be presented to Albert right before the loud bang would sound.
  • Conditioned Response. Albert develops a fear of the white rat, as he associated the white rat with the loud bang.

Little Albert

Watson was successful in eliciting a fear response in Albert. Through repeated exposure to the white rat right before the loud bang sounded, Albert became fearful of white rats. After the experiment ended, Albert’s fear of white rats remained present. He also demonstrated fear in not only white rats but other white fluffy animals. White dogs, cats, rabbits, and stuffed animals all caused Albert to feel afraid.

This phenomenon was named stimulus generalization. Albert generalized the conditioned stimulus to include all white animals, not just rats. Fortunately, Albert eventually overcame his fear of white animals. As time passed without loud bangs when seeing white animals, the conditioned fear response dissipated.

Ethical Considerations

Albert was a 10-month-old infant. His mother gave Watson permission to conduct the Little Albert experiment. This experiment is known not only for its research on classical conditioning and human behavior but also for the ethical dilemma that the experiment posed for Albert.

The experiment was considered to be controversial. This is because it intended to make Albert afraid of relatively harmless scenarios. It also utilized an infant as a test subject, which raised concerns for professionals. The intention of conditioning a fear response was deemed unethical. This resulted in ethical standards being set. They were applied to studying human behavior and using children in research studies.

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