Did Little Albert actually acquire a conditioned fear of furry animals? What the film evidence tells us

AHP readers may be interested in the latest article in the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) Little Albert saga, now in History of Psychology : “Did Little Albert actually acquire a conditioned fear of furry animals? What the film evidence tells us,” by Russell A. Powell and Rodney M. Schmaltz. Abstract:

Watson and Rayner’s (1920) attempt to condition a fear of furry animals and objects in an 11-month-old infant is one of the most widely cited studies in psychology. Known as the Little Albert study, it is typically presented as evidence for the role of classical conditioning in fear development. Some critics, however, have noted deficiencies in the study that suggest that little or no fear conditioning actually occurred. These criticisms were primarily based on the published reports of the study. In this article, we present a detailed analysis of Watson’s (1923) film record of the study to determine the extent to which it provides evidence of conditioning. Our findings concur with the view that Watson and Rayner’s conditioning procedure was largely ineffective, and that the relatively weak signs of distress that Albert does display in the film can be readily accounted for by such factors as sensitization and maturational influences. We suggest that the tendency for viewers to perceive the film as a valid demonstration of fear conditioning is likely the result of expectancy effects as well as, in some cases, an ongoing mistrust of behaviorism as dehumanizing and manipulative. Our analysis also revealed certain anomalies in the film which indicate that Watson engaged in some “literary license” when editing it, most likely with a view toward using the film mainly as a promotional device to attract financial support for his research program.

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.

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