Watson and Rayner's Case of Little Albert, 1920

Watson and Rayner, 1920, attempted to condition a phobia into Little Albert.

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J.B. Watson founded behaviourism, which seeks to use behavioural causes as explanations for abnormality.

Watson believed even the most complex of human emotion could be conditioned as a result of environmental experiences. (CER = Conditioned Emotional Response)

He wanted to demonstrate how true this belief was by using Classical Conditioning.

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Method/Design - Details

This was a laboratory experiment, involving only one participant: Albert B, an 11 month old boy, living in the same hospital where Watson worked.

Albert was presented with a white ratwhich at first provoked no fear in him when he saw it.

Once establishing a connection with the stimulus, the experimentors attempted to condition him to feel afraid of it. On being presented with the white rat, Watson and Rayner made loud, crashing noises behind him using a hammer against a steel object, which obviously immediately distressed Albert.

These such procedures were repeated over a three month period to ensure total conditioning.

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Method/Design - Classical Conditioning

  • (1) The rat = Neutral Stimulus
  • (b) The loud noises = Unconditioned Stimulus
  • (c) Distress of loud noises = Unconditioned Response
  • (2) Albert shows fear... = Conditioned Response
  • (3) ...Of rat alone = Conditioned Stimulus
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Albert did begin to show fear at the sight of the various stimuli after repeated 'learning' experiences. In other words, Watson and Rayner had successfully caused a Conditional Emotional Response (CER) in Albert.

The conclusion came that Conditioned Emotional Responses (as complex and 'abstract as they may be: love, fear, hate, phobia etc) could indeed be aquired as a direct result of environmental experiences.

If they are not counter-conditioned, these CERs can remain for an indefinite period of time.

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  • Major ethical issues
  • The rule of protecting the participant from psychological and physical harm was duly broken and as a result, this experiment would not be allowed today.
  • Also, Watson and Rayner never managed to counter-condition Little Albert which implies that he may in fact have gone the rest of his life with a fear of white rats, rabbits, cotton wool etc.
  • As a laboratory experiment, there is a high level of control but it has low ecological validity.
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