Most psychology students have heard the story of “Little Albert,” the infant conditioned by behaviorism-founder John B. Watson and his research assistant (later wife) Rosalie Rayner to fear objects (such as rabbits) that had originally evoked no aversion in the tot.
Now a new article has been published in History of Psychology arguing that the baby Watson and Rayner used in the famed study (“Albert B.”, as he was dubbed in the original research report) was not “normal” and “healthy” as they claimed, but was, instead, seriously neurologically impaired as a result of congenital hydrocephalus and a number of other medical conditions from which he suffered in his short life.
The new paper was authored by Alan J. Fridlund of UC Santa Barbara, Hall P. Beck of Appalachia St. U., William D. Goldie of UCLA and U Southern California, and Gary Irons who is a nephew of the boy claimed to have been been the real “Albert B.”
Back in 2009, Beck, Irons, and another researcher, Shaman Levinson, argued on the basis of archival records that “Albert B.” was, in fact, an infant named Douglas Merritte, the son of a wet-nurse employed by the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children at Johns Hopkins University. The records available at that time indicated that Merritte had died later, at the age of six years, of hydrocephalus. It was thought that he had contracted the condition a couple of years before — long after the Watson and Rayner study — possibly as a result of exposure to meningitis in the family home.
In the new article, however, Fridlund et al. report the discovery of medical records from Merritte’s infancy that establish not only that the child had hydrocephalus from within a month of his birth, but that he suffered from substantial neurological damage as a result. Fridlund (a clinical psychologist) and Goldie (a paediatric neurologist) note that the child in the film Watson and Rayner made of the “Albert B.” study does not appear developmentally normal for an 11-month-old. His responses to people, animals, and object are abnormally reserved (even Watson and Rayner described him as “stolid”). He appears to use little or no verbal language. In addition, some of his movements (particularly his grasp) are characteristic of a much younger child. Indeed, in addition to the possibility of social, cognitive, and behavioral deficits, Merritte might even have been significantly visually impaired at the time of Watson and Rayner’s famous experiment. Although both Fridlund and Goldie concede that firm diagnosis is difficult when one only has a few minutes of grainy black and white film to go on, they are both convinced that there was something developmentally out of sorts with “Albert B.”, and that his abnormalities are consistent with the congenital hydrocephalus from which Douglas Merritte is known to have suffered. Irons, Merritte’s nephew, adds that family stories report that Merritte was unable to walk throughout his entire short life, and that his verbal language was minimal.
All of this raises the question of why Watson and Rayner used this particular child for their landmark study. Is it possible that there were wholly unaware of his medical condition? That hardly seems likely, though they may not have known the full extent of his disabilities. Even so, what impact did Merritte’s condition (presuming the identification of him with “Albert B.” is correct) have on the results, and on their generalizability to other children who are not suffering from such deficits? And what are the ethical implications of Watson and Rayner’s (a) having subjected an infant in such a precarious medical condition to the rigors of their fear-conditioning procedure, and (b) not having reported what they knew of Merritte’s medical condition in the published report of their study?
No doubt, these questions will be discussed and debated vigorously in the months and years to come.
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