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Little Albert Experiment: Oh, Rats!

Introduction

You're headed to the park when you see someone walking a massive German Shepherd. You make eye contact with the dog as you're about to cross each others' paths. Suddenly, there's a nearby car's engine that backfires, producing a painfully loud sound. You jump at the noise as you're passing the dog and its owner, but calm down and go on your way. Finally, you arrive at the park and can enjoy your day. But every time you see a large dog, your heart races and you instinctively take a step back. Are you afraid of big dogs now? 

Explanation

What you're really afraid of is loud sounds, like an engine backfiring. Your experience during your walk caused you to associate big dogs with the unpleasant noise, provoking your fear response. A similar instance of classical conditioning took place during the Little Albert Experiment.

Little Albert Experiment

The Little Albert Experiment was a classical conditioning experiment conducted on a little boy named Albert. Experimenters classically conditioned Albert by repeatedly pairing neutral stimuli, such as rats and rabbits, with feared stimuli, like loud noises. Albert developed a phobia of similarly white and fluffy stimuli.

The Experiment

John B. Watson wanted to see if Ivan Pavlov's classical conditioning could be used on humans. He, along with his graduate student Rosalie Rayner, carried out the infamous Little Albert Experiment. 

They began by exposing Albert to stimuli such as a white rat, monkey, and rabbit. Albert showed no fear of these objects. Then, Watson and Rayner paired one of these neutral stimuli, the white rat, with an unconditioned feared stimulus. Like many children, Albert was afraid of loud sounds - they provoked an unconditioned fear response. The experimenters left Albert alone with the rat, but each time he reached for it, they would hit a hammer against metal, causing a banging noise. After several pairings, experimenters only showed Albert the rat. This sight alone caused Albert to cry, which was his standard reaction to loud sounds. Thus the experimenters were able to turn the neutral stimulus of the white rat into a conditioned stimulus and provoke a conditioned response of fear.

After the initial trials, Little Albert went back home. A week passed, and Little Albert was brought back in and exposed to other animals this time. When presented with a white rat, any other furry animal, or even a fur coat, he burst into tears and attempted to crawl away. This is known as stimulus generalization because Albert began to fear other white furry objects due to their similarity to the white rat. 

So What?

This experiment is considered very unethical. The researchers failed to decondition Albert to the stimuli he was afraid of, which should have been done after the experiment. Albert ended up passing away at the age of six due to hydrocephalus, a condition that can lead to brain damage. Despite knowing the child's health condition, Watson continued the experiment. Today, an experiment like this would not be approved by the Institutional Review Board, which protects the rights of human research subjects in studies. The experiment caused a young child a lot of discomfort and fear. Albert's health condition might've deteriorated faster by undergoing this stressful experiment. 

There are also some inherent flaws with the Little Albert Experiment. The experiment was supposed to test classical conditioning theories on humans, but they only used one subject. This sole subject was an infant who wasn't even one year of age who may have had brain damage. Therefore this experiment only proved that one white, male baby with hydrocephalus could be classically conditioned. The results should not be generalized across people of different age, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, race, disabilities, or other identities without more test subjects. 

Furthermore, the researchers didn't thoroughly explain how they collected their data, which makes the experiment difficult to replicate. There are still photographs of Little Albert's reaction to the stimuli, but it seems the researcher mostly relied on their subjective personal observations. Their interpretations of Little Albert's neutral and fear reactions can be heavily biased, so it's difficult to assess whether their data is reliable. On top of not having objective data collection methods, the experiment has very low external validity because it isn't generalizable to others. 

The Little Albert Experiment is used to explain classical conditioning because it's a vivid, powerful example, but that's not all it helps explain. Overall, this experiment shows that ethical issues and scientific flaws are interconnected. Ethical flaws can directly create general, experimental design flaws, and vice versa. It's essential to take such experiments as learning lessons in more than one way—they're helpful to learn more about psychology, but it's also necessary to identify the flaws, differentiate right from wrong, and understand the repercussions of such experiments.

Think Further

  1. Can you think of anything you’ve been classically conditioned to perceive as a phobia? Explain. 
  2. What do you think the researchers could have done to avoid ethical mishaps and make this experiment as harmless as possible?
  3. How could researchers have made this experiment stronger and clearly prove whether humans could be classically conditioned?

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  1. McLeod, S. A. “Classical Conditioning-Simply Psychology.” Luettavissa: http://www. simplypsychology.org/classical-conditioning. html.Luettu 25 (2008): 2013.
  2. Harris, Ben. “Whatever happened to little Albert?” American psychologist 34.2 (1979): 151.
  3. Till, Brian D., and Randi Lynn Priluck. “Stimulus generalization in classical conditioning: An initial investigation and extension.” Psychology & Marketing 17.1 (2000): 55-72.