May HoP, including a Special Section: Who Was Little Albert? The Historical Controversy

Photographs of John Watson (left) and Rosalie Rayner (right) via Ben Harris.

The May 2020 issue of History of Psychology is now online. The issue includes a special section on “Who Was Little Albert? The Historical Controversy.” Full details follow below.

Special Section: Who Was Little Albert? The Historical Controversy
“Journals, referees, and gatekeepers in the dispute over Little Albert, 2009–2014,” Harris, Ben. Abstract:

In this article, I examine the rise and fall of recent claims about the identity of John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner’s subject “Albert B.” (Watson & Rayner, 1920). Using medical records from 1919 to 1920 and close readings of published work, I argue that articles by Beck, Fridlund, and colleagues (Beck, Levinson, & Irons, 2009; Fridlund, Beck, Goldie, & Irons, 2012) were based on questionable logic and selective reporting of data. Using unpublished correspondence, media coverage, and editorial exchanges, I offer a backstage look at the process by which claims about Albert’s identity were published and then contradicted by new research. In publicizing both sides of this controversy, textbook authors and journalists played a more constructive role than critics of popularization might expect. Rather than a simple case of truth winning out over falsehood, this seems to have been a clash of rhetorical styles and sources of authority. That clash complicated the process of peer review, which became a negotiation over conflicting criteria from different disciplines.

“The Little Albert controversy: Intuition, confirmation bias, and logic,” by Digdon, Nancy. Abstract:

This article uses the recent controversy about Little Albert’s identity as an example of a fine case study of problems that can befall psychologist-historians and historians who are unaware of their tacit assumptions. Because bias and logical errors are engrained in human habits of mind, we can all succumb to them under certain conditions unless we are vigilant in guarding against them. The search for Little Albert suggests 2 persistent issues: (a) confirmation bias and (b) that overconfidence in a belief detracts from reasoning because logical errors are intuitive and seem reasonable. This article uses cognitive psychology as a framework for understanding why these issues might have arisen in the Albert research and passed the scrutiny of peer review. In closing, the article turns to historians’ writings to gain insight into rules of thumb and heuristics that psychologist-historians and historians can use to mitigate these concerns.

“The case for Douglas Merritte: Should we bury what is alive and well?” Fridlund, Alan J.; Beck, Hall P.; Goldie, William D.; Irons, Gary. Abstract:

In 2012, we (Fridlund, Beck, Goldie, & Irons, 2012) suggested that a neurologically impaired infant, Douglas Merritte, was the likeliest candidate for John B. Watson’s “Albert B.” In advancing the case for their alternative candidate, Albert Barger, Harris (2020) and Digdon (2020) both pronounce the Merritte case moribund. Prof. Digdon attributes our differing conclusions to logical error, selective reporting, and “confirmation bias” throughout our research. Prof. Harris goes further, (a) accusing us of withholding evidence, (b) alleging that we charged Watson unjustly with malpractice and preying on a helpless victim, (c) likening our research to that of “many popular accounts” in the history of psychology “that exist beyond the reach of traditional peer review”, (d) explaining the publication of our results as failures of peer review and the editorial process, and (e) attributing interest in our findings to gullible media and a guilty readership. We present data which show that the evidential claims Profs. Digdon and Harris advance against the Merritte case are incautious and expedient, and that their criticisms of our methods and allegations of bias arise from problems with their own scholarship. Contrary to their narratives, the neurologically impaired Douglas Merritte remains the closest fit to Watson’s “extremely phlegmatic” Albert.

“Watching the detectives: The multiple lives of academic editing” Pickren, Wade E. Abstract:

There are as many approaches to academic editing as there are editors. I suspect that for those of us who make editing a large part of our professional lives, it is also a constantly evolving process of learning, adapting, and, sometimes, improvising. I have served as an editor of books and journals for the last 18 years, including a term as editor of this journal. My statements here reflect my thoughts about editing academic journals, although the principles I employ are operative in all forms of my editorial work.


““Don’t worry”: Figurations of the child in a Swedish parenting advice column” Skagius, Peter. Abstract:

Materials such as popular books, magazines, and newspapers have historically been important for the circulation of psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ expertise in the public sphere. In this article, I analyze an advice column published in the Swedish parenting magazine Vi Föräldrar [Us Parents], featuring the child psychologist Malin Alfvén. Drawing on the concept of figurations (Castañeda, 2002), denoting the process of outlining and defining an entity, I show how the expert framed the child-related problems brought up in the submitted letters as transient and a normal part of children’s development. In fact, most problems were considered beneficial for both parents and the child. Instead of interpreting children’s behavior through a medical framework, Alfvén’s explanations drew on 3 naturalizing figurations of the child: as being one of several kinds of children; as going through phases and ages; and as being a unique individual. For instance, a child could be rowdy and temperamental because he was a willful kind of child, not because, as suggested by some parents, he suffered from a neuropsychiatric disorder. I conclude by contrasting these findings to the claims made by some scholars that “psy” experts have contributed to an increasing medicalization of childhood as well as to a framing of children’s development as overwhelmingly determined by parents’ care.

“Psychologists’ psychologies of psychologists in a time of crisis” Morawski, Jill. Abstract:

Beset by detection of replication failures and questionable research practices over the last decade, psychology has been deemed by many to be in crisis. The situation is exceptional not only for the many investigative practices being scrutinized but also for the attention given to the undue influence of psychologists’ psychology on those practices. Comparative analysis of 2 crises finds that the earlier one focused on the experimenters’ activities within the laboratory, whereas the current concerns center on experimenters’ postexperimental work. Whereas the previous crisis did include deep concerns about experimenters, the currently offered psychologies of fellow psychologists are distinctive in their frequency, intensity, and considerable reliance upon established knowledge about human thought and behavior. In so utilizing scientific psychology to assess psychology, the current appraisals give richer evidence of the circuitry of psychological knowledge as it travels from the laboratory outward and back. They give considerable attention to the scientists’ moral characteristics, whereas the earlier crisis generated concerns about experimenters’ conduct in the laboratory and the politics surrounding the application of psychological knowledge. Through their direct discussions of personal and moral conduct, the assessments also resonate with uncertainties about scientists’ self-control, normative ethics, and emotions. Taken together, the psychologies and attendant uncertainties illuminate present conditions of psychology’s scientific self and invite reflection on the close connections between that self, ethos, and epistemology.

“New books on the early history of British psychoanalysis: An essay review” Shapira, Michal. Abstract:

Reviews the books, Freud in Cambridge by John Forrester and Laura Cameron and Psychoanalysis in Britain, 1893-1913: Histories and Historiography by Philip Kuhn. Sigmund Freud and his invention of the discipline of psychoanalysis had an immense intellectual impact on 20th-century culture. Yet, although his writings were received with great enthusiasm—as well as with hostility—we are still lacking full accounts of all the various sites where Freud and his ideas were widely discussed and which rapidly paired his name (as early as the 1920s) with those of eminent intellectuals such as Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. Forrester and Cameron’s Freud in Cambridge is a good book to read alongside Phillip Kuhn’s Psychoanalysis in Britain, 1893–1913: Histories and Historiography, published in 2017 (for my full review, see Michal, 2019). Here, I include only what is relevant to a comparison of the two books. Freud in Cambridge opposes writing the history of psychoanalysis modeled on the “Great Man” and focusing on Sigmund Freud the individual and his decisive influence, as it rejects a historical model centered around the bureaucracy of institutions such as the International Psycho-Analytic Association. Concentrating on the British case, the book chooses instead to look beyond Ernest Jones’ efforts to spread Freud’s ideas, and beyond the workings of the British Psycho-Analytical Society (BPAS) that Jones created in 1919. Kuhn’s periodization is earlier than that of Forrester and Cameron, as he provides a meticulous examination and close textual reading of contemporary sources to look at the last years of the 19th century and the era before the outbreak of the Great War. Similarly, Kuhn’s book is a closely researched study of the early days of psychoanalysis in Britain within broad medical and social contexts.

“Maria Montessori: A complex and multifaceted historiographical subject” Romano, Andrea. Abstract:

The main goal of this essay is to outline the historiographical profile of Maria Montessori (1870 –1952), which has been subject to substantial investigation in recent years (Babini & Lama, 2000; De Giorgi, 2013; Foschi, 2012; Giovetti, 2009; Marazzi, 2000). These latest analyses have highlighted a previously unacknowledged complexity. The historiographical literature on Maria Montessori, her pedagogical method, and her experiences in different parts of the world is composed of numerous contributions characterized by different focuses and purposes.

“John Watson: In verse.” Charles, Eric. Abstract:

This poem describes John Watson and his scientific contributions through verse.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.