Little Albert

10 October 2016

To support the theory that environment is more powerful than genetics, Watson designed an experiment on an infant commonly known as the Little Albert experiment. This experiment focused on Ivan Pavlov’s process of classical conditioning. Watson believed and wanted to prove that all human psychology can be explained by this process (McLeod, 2008). The other studies that I will be comparing the Little Albert experiment to will be “Elevated fear conditioning to socially relevant unconditioned stimuli in Social Anxiety Disorder” (Lissek, Levson, Biggs, et all, 2008) and the study of Pavlov’s dogs (Pavlov, 1928).

These studies will enable me to make a justified evaluation of the Little Albert study by making comparisons to these two other studies. The Little Albert experiment was conducted by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner in 1920. They chose nine month old Baby Albert for the study because Albert had been reared almost from birth in Harriet Lane home for Invalid Children where his mother was a wet nurse. Albert was deemed extremely stable and well developed which determined his suitability for the experiment (McLeod, 2007).

The focus of their study was to continue on from Pavlov’s experiment involving the classical conditioning of dogs, and determine whether this empirical evidence was also evident in humans (Watson, 1924). More specifically, they were focusing on conditioned emotional responses. In determining these aspects they conducted a series of different tests involving a variation of stimulus. Before the experiment commenced, they gave Albert a sequence of baseline tests to determine his initial fear responses to stimuli.

They presented him with burning paper, a monkey, a dog, cotton wool, a fur coat (seal), various masks and a white rat. During the baseline, Albert showed no initial fear to these items. Throughout the study these items (fluffy white objects) served as the independent variables. The dependant variable was whether or not Albert cried or showed distress. During the study Albert was positioned on a mattress on a table. Albert was presented with a white rat and just as he reached out to touch it, a metal bar was struck with a hammer behind him.

Albert jumped and fell forward, burring his head into the mattress, but did not cry. After these two stimuli were paired on several occasions, Albert was presented with only the white rat. As the rat appeared in front of him he became distressed and turned away, puckered his lips, began to cry and crawled away (Watson, 1924). From this, it became obvious that Albert’s fear had been conditioned. Albert had associated the white rat with a loud noise producing fear, thus having conditioned fear of the white rat. The experiment showed that Little Albert generalized his response from furry animals to anything furry.

Albert showed the same reactions as the initial experiment when Watson presented him with a furry dog, seal-skin coat and even a Santa-Claus mask (Watson, 1924). The way in which Albert’s responses were measured was through the amount of distress to the stimuli he presented. The Little Albert study is a highly popular study especially across the field of Psychology. Although the study has provided valuable knowledge and understanding of learned behaviours and the development of phobias, it’s procedures considering ethics are questionable.

The fact that Albert was only nine months old deems this study unethical. Albert’s mother was obviously desperate for money to support her son, so the bribe of money probably out-weighted the possible harm caused to her son. Albert’s mother probably wasn’t entirely aware of the potential risks involved. Albert’s fear was supposed to be extinguished at the end of the experiment, but he moved away. Other ethical codes that have been violated in this study are that of the distress that it caused.

Little Albert was never desensitized from the conditioning undergone meaning that because he had a conditioned fear of white furry objects, he would forever be terrified of white furry objects (Watson, 1924). In today’s code of ethics, the welfare of the participant/s is the most important factor and under no circumstances should this protection be hindered, unless the participant has given consent to be put under this distress. It is also now deemed unethical to purposely cause distress to a participant in laboratory circumstances (Weiten, 2008).

These unethical procedures could have been corrected quite simply. In the study of fear conditioning in people with social anxiety disorder, they conducted what called an extinction process where the participants were desensitized from any fear conditioning that took part throughout the experiment (Lissek, Levson, Biggs, et al, 2008). This experiment is clearly ethical as it was only conducted in 2008 and would have had to have been passed by the ethics board in order to be conducted. The Little Albert study is a valid study; however it was not measured effectively.

The way in which Little Albert’s fear was measured was just whether or not he cried or showed distress. The way in which they measured this could have been improved in order to get more valid and reliable results. In this case, the studies operational definition was not valid. The Little Albert study could have used apparatus in order to get more valid results. For example, they could have measured Albert’s fear by assessing his skin conductivity. This would have measured Albert’s distress through measuring the arousals in his skin i. e. weat. They also could have used the blink-startle response measurement as used in “Elevated fear conditioning to socially relevant unconditioned stimuli in Social Anxiety Disorder” (Lissek, Levson, Biggs, et al, 2008). This method measures how much the participant blinks when presented with a stimuli. If the participant is startled (scared) by something, they will blink a lot more than if they are not startled. The reliability of the Little Albert study is not strong. If the same study was conducted today, the same results would not be found.

Little Albert’s responses to the stimuli that he was presented with could have been a result of his general fear of animals, not that he conditioned a fear of white fluffy objects. Most people would agree with me when I say that if you were a nine month old baby and an animal was jumping up at your face, you would be scared and would become distressed. Being a nine month old baby, Albert also could have just been tired, bored, and hungry or just missed his Mother. None of these factors were accounted for during the trials.

If the same study was conducted today, it would become extremely obvious that times have changed and so too should the design of the study. The reliability of the experiment is hindered by the fact that the method of measurement is simply observation and there is no concrete evidence being analysed. For example if they were to measure brain activity or use the blink-startle reaction measurement, these results would be a lot more concrete and therefore the study would be classed a lot more reliable.

In comparison, the 1928 study of Pavlov’s dogs (Pavlov, 1928) is a lot more reliable even though it is only a few years newer than the Little Albert study. If Pavlov’s experiment was replicated today, very similar if not the same results would be found. The fact that Pavlov used concrete methods of measuring his data deemed his study a lot more reliable. If he was to measure the amount that the dogs salivate by just observing them, it would not be as valid.

To conclude, through the evaluation of the Little Albert study and comparison to ““Elevated fear conditioning to socially relevant unconditioned stimuli in Social Anxiety Disorder” (Lissek, Levson, Biggs, et al, 2008) and Pavlov’s dogs (Pavlov, 1928) it has come to my attention that the Little Albert study does not comply to today’s code of ethics, the reliability is not strong and could be improved on however it is a valid study, but the operational definition could be improved.

I feel that the contributions to knowledge of conditioned fear are valuable to society and has proved useful in various situations and other studies. Future studies on this topic would prove extremely valuable to society and our understanding on fear conditioning. References McLeod, S. A. (2007). Simply Psychology; Nature Nurture in Psychology. Retrieved 3 April 2012

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