Solving the mystery of ‘Little Albert’

Almost every psychology student has met the pseudonymous infant who was the subject of a famous experiment by John B. Watson

Bad behaviour

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He is one of the most famous babies in history, but until recently his real name was unknown. Almost every undergraduate who takes a psychology course has met “Little Albert,” the pseudonymous infant who was the subject of a famous experiment by John B. Watson (1879-1958). Watson founded the theoretical school of “behaviourism,” which sought to reduce psychology to observable laws, excluding interior mental states altogether, and considered the mind to be infinitely suggestible and plastic. In the “Little Albert” experiment, filmed in 1920, Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, showed how a baby who was unafraid of a white rat could be conditioned to fear it; they showed “Albert” the rat several times while clanging an iron bar behind his head. After a few repetitions of this, the sight of any white fur would make Albert wail.

Albert is still in the textbooks, though nowadays he is used as often to discuss ethics as he is to introduce the concept of conditioning. Watson’s marriage and career exploded just weeks after he filmed Albert, when it became public that his assistant was also his girlfriend. Forced to flee Johns Hopkins University, Watson did not “decondition” Albert or follow up the experiment. Toward the end of his life he even burned his personal papers in a fit of nihilism.

So what happened to Albert? Anyone who reads about the experiment has surely wondered. Did he go on to live a long life, cringing at mink coats throughout?

In 2009, after a long march through libraries and census records, psychologists Hall Beck and Sharman Levinson discovered the sad truth: “Albert” was almost certainly Douglas Merritte (1919-1925), the son of a Johns Hopkins wet nurse, whose Maryland death certificate says he died of hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”), after acquiring meningitis three years earlier. This hard-earned finding seemed to represent the end of a long mystery, but has instead led to a surprising sequel.

Beck and Levinson’s paper took Douglas Merritte’s death certificate at face value. But something was nagging at Beck. Watson’s paper on Little Albert emphasized how “normal, healthy, [and] well-developed” he was, as do undergrad textbooks. But the Albert footage reminded Beck of developmentally disabled children he had seen in his own career. Could Watson have used a brain-damaged baby to verify the core principle of his behaviourism? And could he have done so knowingly?

In a paper published Jan. 23 in History of Psychology, Beck and University of California at Santa Barbara psychologist Alan Fridlund say yes. Fridlund read the Beck-Levinson paper and found it odd that meningitis would take three years to kill a child in the pre-antibiotic era. When he googled video of Albert/Douglas, he independently had the same reaction as Beck. Albert, filmed late in his first year of life, has slow reaction times. His motor skills are poor. He doesn’t make eye contact with the adults around him or “consult” their emotional reactions.

Other child-development experts shown the video without introductory context remarked to Fridlund on Albert’s impassiveness, making notes like “very primitive scooping.” One said, remarkably, “What bothers me the most … there is no startle to animals . . . There’s something already gone wrong.” The key finding of the experiment, viewed without preconceptions by a modern neurologist, turns out to be a sign of its dubiousness.

When they checked with Douglas Merritte’s family, Beck and Fridlund were stunned to learn that Douglas died without ever being able to walk at all. Then new historical records from Johns Hopkins appeared. They confirmed the identification of Albert with Douglas, established that Douglas was dreadfully ill almost from birth, proved that his hydrocephalus was definitely congenital, and made it nearly impossible to believe that Watson did not lie about Douglas’s health. The Little Albert experiment is a classic of psychology that always implied child abuse, justifiable only in old-school terms by its scientific “value.” Now there seems to be no defence left at all.


Solving the mystery of ‘Little Albert’

  1. This is why I love science, and hate “Science”.

  2. Hummmm ?  More quack science,  not surprising.   We have “climate gate” why not Watsons’ psycho gate…  What people (scientists?) do to $core funding i$ pathetic.

    • While there is no excuse for the ethical lapse in using a child with brain damage for the experiment, the truth is the foundations of behaviorism have been backed up thousands of time – there is no fraud or “quack” work here (i.e., the claim was overreaching, but subsequent research confirmed the principle).  Lastly, take the tired Tea Bagger talking points about money and shove ’em.  They’re old and untrue.  You clearly don’t understand science beyond your desire to cherry pick findings that support your world view…the exact opposite of a true scientific mindset.

  3. Wow! Sometimes I’m glad I picked engineering for post secondary.

    It wasn’t terribly useful for understanding people, but then neither were experiments like this.

  4. We all seek the approval of others.

  5. There are just as many unethical people and outright fraudsters in science and medicine as there are in any other field.

    That doesn’t mean we should discount all science or ban it the way some American states are trying to do. Nor should we try to warp science to fit our current local politics and economics.

    Critical thinking is vital at all times.

    • Let’s just put things into context…these experiments took place 90 years ago.  At present, in Canadian Universities we have ethics boards that go over research proposals with a fine-tooth comb before giving them the approval to go ahead.   Yes, critical thinking is vital, as are up-to-date information and facts.

      • Is there some reason you don’t think others can read dates?

        Unethical people and outright fraudsters in science and medicine are still around….and that’s what I was addressing.

        • Emily, I was just pointing out that much has changed in that last almost century to make it impossible for any so-called fraudsters and unethical people to do research and get their findings published.  They would have no support from the universities in the country and thus no funding.  If you are going to make statements such as you do, you should at least provide us with examples of these ‘unethical people and outright fraudsters in science and medicine’ in Canada.

          • I know you enjoy living in your neat little box, but I’m afraid it’s quite possible, and happens often.

            We have scientists right now accepting money to deny global warming….the same kind of people who defended tobacco and acid rain.  

            It happens in all fields.

          • Hmm, yes…like the people who ignore the fact that burning coal to power electricity emits 13 percent of Canada’s total carbon emissions whereas the Alberta oilsands only emit 3 to 5 percent….those kind of fraudsters and unethical people.

          • Where have you been?  I have reported on this revelation of yours regarding the muzzling of physicians who have advocated for patients in Alberta countless times on different threads.  It would seem to be in contradiction to your “claim” that their are unethical people and outright fraudsters in medicine, given that the ones doing the bullying were in administration and government and not in direct patient care or research  and the ones getting bullied are in medicine and looking after patients.  I don’t have a “house” to get in order.  The “house” is run by the government.  We are merely the worker bees and despite what you and some people continue to believe most people who chose to work in healthcare are decent, caring human beings who have people’s best insterests at heart. 

          • @57fc79f8528c0aa6c4b4330d53700334:disqus 

            And what I said was there are unethical people and outright fraudsters in every field…and for some reason you chose to attack me over it.

            Take up another hobby.

          • It was not an attack.  It was a reminder that almost one hundred have passed and thank goodness some protection has been put in place to ensure that research studies are completed in an ethical manner, at least in Canadian hospitals and universities.  I am not sure why you feel “attacked” when I mention anything of this nature.  It is certainly not my intention and I apologize if I make you feel that way.

      • I made a flat statement….a true statement….that had nothing to do with you, your province, your hospitals or your doctors.  Just like this thread has nothing to do with any of those things.

        There was no need to spring to anyone’s defence.

        A hundred years may have passed but unethical and fraudulent behavior still exists….in all fields and in all countries.

        Apology accepted.

  6. horriffying!

  7. There is evidence both for and against the possibility of Douglas Merritte being Little Albert. Unfortunately, what is happening here is a concerted effort to prove that Douglas was Albert rather than properly weigh the evidence for and against. Here’s just one example: Beck, in his original article, claimed that he found no evidence to support the “myth” of Albert having been adopted when he left the hospital. This is mentioned almost as an aside, but is actually critical for the claim that Douglas was Albert since Douglas was never adopted but stayed with his mother. However, when mentioning this adoption myth, Beck doesn’t bother to inform the reader that this is no ordinary myth, but an actual statement from Watson! When eventually confronted with this rather glaring omission, Beck’s basic argument was that because Watson was unreliable in some of his other statements about Albert, then one can safely conclude that he was wrong in claiming that Albert was adopted (??). Of course, if Watson wasn’t wrong, then Douglas clearly was not Albert. As for this present effort, one bit of evidence they use for Albert’s neurological impairment is the fact that “never, during any of the filmed stimulus presentations, does Albert display social referencing.” In reality, Albert at least twice looks toward Watson or Rayner during the brief sequences that are filmed. But the authors reject this as social referencing because no evidence can be seen of “mutual gaze.” Well, the film is so grainy and the cameras so positioned that it would be extremely difficult to find evidence of mutual gaze. Perhaps what’s really frightening here is that this article was able to make it through the peer review process. Then again, nothing like a good story to get people enthralled and psychologists are no more immune to that than anyone else.