You’ll have heard of Pavlov’s dogs, conditioned to expect food at the sound of a bell. You might not have heard that a scarier experiment – arguably one of psychology’s most unethical – was once performed on a baby.
In it, a 9-month-old, at first unfazed by the presence of animals, was conditioned to feel fear at the sight of a rat. The infant was presented with the animal as someone struck a metal pole with a hammer above his head. This was repeated until he cried at merely the sight of any furry object – animate or inanimate.
The “Little Albert” experiment, performed in 1919 by John Watson of Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, was the first to show that a human could be classically conditioned. The fate of Albert B has intrigued researchers ever since.
Hall Beck at the Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, has been one of the most tenacious researchers on the case. Watson’s papers stated that Albert B was the son of a wet nurse who worked at the hospital. Beck spent seven years exploring potential candidates and used facial analysis to conclude in 2009 that Little Albert was Douglas Merritte, son of hospital employee Arvilla.
A life cut short
Douglas was born on the same day as Albert and several other points tallied with Watson’s notes. Tragically, medical records showed that Douglas had severe neurological problems and died at an early age of hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. According to his records, this seems to have resulted in vision problems, so much so that at times he was considered blind.
Beck and his colleagues reanalysed grainy video footage of Watson’s experiments, in which they claim Little Albert shows behavioural deficits that were “grossly abnormal”. These included being unusually uninterested in the animals when he was initially presented with them, and some kind of perception problem. They consulted with two clinicians, who suggested that Albert showed signs of neurological damage that fitted with Merritte’s medical records, discovered at a later date. Could Watson have known about this impairment and lied when he said that he had chosen Albert because he was a healthy, psychologically stable, baby?
If correct, “the significance of Beck’s revelation was that it indicated the scale and nature of the researcher’s dubious practices was far greater than previously supposed,” says Alex Haslam, a psychologist at the University of Exeter, UK.
But not everyone was won over. “When Beck claimed he had discovered Little Albert I was so excited,” says Russ Powell at MacEwan University in Alberta, Canada, “but then I started finding inconsistencies.”