Classic Study: Watson and Raynor


Wanted to see if they could condition a phobic response to a white rat in an infant. They wanted to investigate if a human child could learn to be afraid of a previously neutral stimulus which initially caused no fear response, and whether this reaction would be generalised to similar objects.

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Although it was only carried out on one participant ( a healthy, 9 month old male infant call 'Little Albert') this is best described as an example of a lab experiment.

Precondtioning Testing:

Tested response to various stimuli such as a dog, mask, a white rat, cotton wool and a burning newspaper. Little Albert did not respnd adversely to any of these. 

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Conditioning Trails

  • At 11 months old, Albert is again presented with the white rat (no fear was noted - he would reach out and play with it)
  • Every time he reaches for the rat, a loud noise is made (by striking a hammer against a steel bar behind Albert's head)
  • This process was repeated many times over several weeks
  • Watson and Raynor relocted the investigations to a lwcture room, to measure the effect of surroundings on Little Albert's response.
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The End of the Experiment

There was evidence of stimulus generalisation. When presented with a rabbit, Albert got as far away from it as he could and started to cry.

When the investigation relocated to a lecture room,the same fear responses were still observed. Therefore, the child's responses weren't linked to the surroundings.

31 days into the experiment, Albert was taken from the hospital by his mother. 

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In the post conditioning tests, the following observations were made:

  • After the first trail, Albert showed some distress
  • After the second trail, he seemed suspicious of the rat
  • After the third trail, he leaned away from the rat and when the rat was put next to him, he started to cry
  • 7 weeks later, Albert cried in response to a number of stimuli such as the fur collar of a coat and Santa's beard (generalisation)
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Watson and Raynor concluded that it is possible to produce a fear response (phobia) in a human using the process of classical conditioning.

What happened to Little Albert after the study?

Watson wanted to desensitise and decondition him, but Alber left the hospital so this didn't happen. "Little Alber" was a pseudonym for Douglas Merritte. The boy died on May 10, 1925 of hydrocephalus

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There was only 1 participant so it is hard to generalise the findings to the wider population of infants. But, Albert was considered a healthy 9 month old so causing a fear response in him is likely to create a fear response in other children as well. Albert was also American, so we can't be sure if the findings would generalise to children from other countries. In conclusion, more research needs to be carried out on children of different ages and from different countries and cultures.

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On one hand, the study has good internal reliability as it was a standardised procedure - it was carried out in the same room, with the same experimenters and the same noise at the same time. However, it is hard to objectively measure or operationalise a fear response. This affects the reliablity of the study as if someone else repeated it, they might interpret fear differenlty. 

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The study has poor ecological validity as it was an artificial environment (lab experiment). Albert may have already been afraid as the lab would have been an unfamiliar environment and they were trying to condition fear into him. However, they relocated the experiment to a lecture room which allowed them to control for context effects. The study also has good internal validity as extraneous variables, such as other noises that might have scared Albert or affected the results, were controlled for. Therefore, the study has good scientific credibility.

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There was poor protection of participants. The experiment would have caused Albert distress and could cause negative long-term impacts. Albert could not give informed consent. However, his mother did give consent for Albert to take part in the study. They also had the right to withdraw as after 31 days, Albert's mother removed him from the hospital.

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