Little Albert, the boy who had been conditioned

In 1920, two psychologists, Watson and Rayner did a famous experiment that successfully found evidence of conditioned emotional reaction in human beings. However, the experiment itself is morally questionable.


The experiment involved putting a boy named Albert B, into an empty room and exposing him to series of stimuli such as lab rats, furry balls, dogs, etc. at first, little Albert displayed no emotion to any of these objects.  However, on the second stage, little Albert was again given the stimuli paired with a low noise. It has already been established by scientists that human beings respond to loud noise by fear—a typical unconditioned response. Therefore, as the experiment proceeded, little Albert was found to show fear and discomfort when exposed to the previous neutral stimuli. Based on that observation, conclusion was made that emotion can be conditioned.

Well done, two scientists. But a journey made by some scientists in finding the Albert few years ago questioned Watson and Rayner’s findings and rumbled their classical conditioned learning theory. They tracked down the “little Albert”, only to find that the boy had died at the age of six because of hydrocephalus (a neurological condition caused by the accumulation of fluid in the brain, interestingly, in china when we say someone has water in his or her brain, we mean that the person is stupid). The condition was firstly believed to have developed two years after the experiment was conducted, rendering the renowned research into an ethical dilemma, then in 2012, another research was done and claimed that the little Albert was born with water in his head. If the boy had such medical condition, hence the result of the experiment could by no means represent the general human beings. Therefore this new discovery about the mystical Albert tipped the previous finding of Watson and Rayner into new doubt. Both possibilities could be a slap on the face of two of the most respectful psychologist in the 20 century. They were left with only two options, to be either shameless liars who claimed Albert to be a health and normal kid, (they probably have faked the result, too) , or inhumane monsters who brought fear into a toddlers life, giving him bizarre phobia to anything and fury for the rest of his short-lived life.


Beck, H.P., Levinson, S. & Irons, G., 2009. Finding Little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson’s infant laboratory. American Psychologist, 64(7), pp.605-14.

Watson, J.B. & Rayner, R., 2000. Conditioned emotional reactions. American Psychologist, 55(3), pp.313-17.


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