Tag Archives: Behaviorism

The Expert: A Novel Based on the Life of Rosalie Rayner

Author Andromeda Romano-Lax has crowd funded, through USA Projects, a book in progress on the life of Rosalie Rayner (left). Tentatively titled The Expert, Romano-Lax’s the novel will be a fictionalized account of Rayner’s short life (1899-1935). Most famously, Rayner was John Watson’s graduate student assistant during the Little Albert study. Following a scandal caused by their affair, while Watson was married to someone else, they married and had two children.

As described on the project’s now closed fundraising site,

He was the founder of behaviorism and the most influential American psychologist of his day—a famous parenting “expert” who counseled mothers never to kiss or cuddle their children, and who went on to apply behaviorist principles to Madison Avenue advertising. She was the 19-year-old graduate student who assisted his research—and within a year, found her own career derailed when their steamy affair made front-page news in the East Coast newspapers.

John Watson is well known in psychology circles, but his second wife, Rosalie Rayner, the narrator of this based-on-real-events novel, is known mostly as a textbook footnote—a woman involved in scandal who retreated from her own career ambitions to support her larger-than-life, controversial husband before dying at the tragically young age of 35. Rayner’s own little-known story (informed by the stories of other women psychologists and professionals of the same time period) aims to shed light on the life of a 1920s Vassar-educated woman and mother, part of a post-suffragette, interwar, Jazz Age generation that looked to science, technology, and corporate slogans for expert answers on how to live.

….I will use project funds to continue the first phase of research (which began with a visit to Baltimore MD, Washington DC, and Poughkeepsie NY and continues with ongoing follow-up historical research) necessary to write dramatically about a woman of cultural and scientific significance who left almost no paper trail. It would be easier to write about her famous husband, but it is the little-known quality of Rosalie’s life – and the story of forgotten women like her – that draws me to this project. To recreate Rosalie Rayner’s life, I will continue to seek out scarce primary sources on Rayner, visit places that were formative to her development, and also continue to learn more about women psychologists and Baltimore life from 1900 to the mid-1930s.

Although this crowd funded project is a literary endeavour — one that just happens to overlap with the history of psychology — this kind of funding initiative raises questions about the future of funding for historical work more generally. What role, if any, will crowd funding have in future research in the history of psychology?

Was “Little Albert” Disabled?

"Albert B.", Watson, and Rayner 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.


Sidney Bijou Dies at 100

Sidney BijouSidney Bijou, the psychologist who developed behaviorist principles into a therapeutic system for children with a range of disorders, died on June 11 at the age of 100. There is an extensive obituary in the New York Times. Bijou worked with radical behaviorist B. F. Skinner in the 1940s, and he came to believe that reinforcing desirable behavior with praise or a hug or just attention would help children who were not responsive to traditional punishments or therapies. Bad behavior was ignored or, if particularly dispurtive, resulted in a short “time out,” which has since become a culturally pervasive technique. Bijou started using his new approach with defiant children, but as the system grew in popularity, it came to be a standard system for helping autistic and attention-deficit children as well, under the name of applied behavior analaysis, or ABA.

Rat Guillotines

rat guillotineMy York U. colleague Michael Pettit put me on to an item at the blog of the Medical Museion (U. Copenhagen) about home-made devices for the “sacrificing” of rats (and other small animals) that have completed their “service” as laboratory subjects, such as this improvised guillotine (left).

Most psychologists who have worked in an animal laboratory will be familiar with such objects, but they may come as a surprise to others, as they seemed to have been to the person who told the blogger about her discovery of one in a behavioral neuroscience lab in Sydney, Australia.

It is also worth checking out the comments on this posting, several of which are from people who have used machines such as this, and note that commercially produced versions have long been available as well.

Interview with author of Beyond the Box

beyond the boxA new book on B. F. Skinner and his influence on American life will be released later this month by the University of Toronto Press. The book, Beyond the Box: B. F. Skinner’s Technology of Behavior from Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s, is authored by Alexandra Rutherford.

The following is from the book’s dust jacket:

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) is one of the most famous and influential figures in twentieth century psychology. A best-selling author, inventor, and social commentator, Skinner was both a renowned scientist and a public intellectual known for his controversial theories of human behavior. Beyond the Box is the first full-length study of the ways in which Skinner’s ideas left the laboratory to become part of the post-war public’s everyday lives, and chronicles both the enthusiasm and caution with which this process was received.

Using selected case studies, Alexandra Rutherford provides a fascinating account of Skinner and his acolytes’ attempts to weave their technology of human behavior into the politically turbulent fabric of 1950s-70s American life. To detail their innovative methods, Rutherford uses extensive archival materials and interviews to study the Skinnerians’ creation of human behavior laboratories, management programs for juvenile delinquents, psychiatric wards, and prisons, as well as their influence on the self-help industry with popular books on how to quit smoking, lose weight, and be more assertive.

A remarkable look at a post-war scientific and technological revolution, Beyond the Box is a rewarding study of how behavioral theories met real-life problems, and the ways in which Skinner and his followers continue to influence the present.

Professor Rutherford is a faculty member of the graduate program in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University and a Fellow of the Society for the History of Psychology. She was gracious enough to grant AHP an interview about her new book. This follows below the fold. Continue reading Interview with author of Beyond the Box

“The Psychologist” on Scientific Myths

The British Psychological Society’s flagship journal, The Psychologist, has published two items related to the history of psychology in its latest issue, and it has kindly made them freely available on its website.

The first is an article by Australian psychologist Malcolm Macmillan on the mythology surrounding the case of Phineas Gage, the Vermont railroad worker who had a tamping iron blasted through his head in 1848 and lived to tell about it.

Macmillan’s research on the case was published in An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage (MIT, 2002), and he has been interviewed for my podcast series, “This Week in the History of Psychology” (Sept. 11-17). Through extensive examination of the primary documents in the case, MacMillan has discovered that the Gage case has been distorted repeatedly through the century-and-a-half since, to suit the neuropsychological theories of the person writing the account. Continue reading “The Psychologist” on Scientific Myths

Videos of the Operant Condition

The website of the B. F. Skinner Foundation has posted online six short videos relevant to its namesake’s illustrious career. They include the famous clip of pigeons playing ping pong, Skinner himself conditioning a pigeon to make a complete turn, and a pigeon learning to use a block to reach a “banana” hung from the top of its enclosure (a sly allusion to Wolfgang Köhler’s “insight” research with a chimp named Sultan). The remaining three videos give an illustrated explanation of Skinner’s schedules of reinforcement, a brief appraisal of Skinner’s work by behavior analyst Murray Sidman, and a short interview with Skinner about conditioning, free will, and gambling.

Behaviorists may not be so pleased by a satirical definition of “behaviorism” I recently found on Dr. Mezmer’s Dictionary of Bad Psychology, which reads: Continue reading Videos of the Operant Condition

Was Pavlov an Equal Opportunity Conditioner?

Ivan PavlovThe spring 2007 issue of the Journal of Mind and Behavior, 28 (2), contains an article on whether the famed Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov would have agreed with American behaviorists of the mid-20th century that virtually any sensory object has the equivalent potential as a conditioned stimulus. The claim, dubbed by Seligman (1970) as “equivalence of associability,” was often attributed to Pavlov, and was a virtual article of faith among American behaviorists until studies such as those by the Brelands (1961) and by Garcia and Koelling (1966) demonstrated that different animals have different propensities to associate certain kinds of CS with certain classes of response.

By contrast, in the article “Pavlov and the Equivalence of Associability in Classical Conditioning,” Continue reading Was Pavlov an Equal Opportunity Conditioner?

“The First Modern Battle for Consciousness”

The latest issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14(11), includes an article by David Berman and William Lyons that examines “the first modern battle for consciousness.”

Here is the abstract:

This essay investigates the influences that led J. B. Watson to change from being a student in an introspectionist laboratory at Chicago to being the founder of systematic (or radical) behaviourism.  Our focus is the crucial period, 1913-1914, when Watson struggled to give a convincing behaviourist account of mental imaging, which he considered to be the greatest obstacle to his behavourist programme.  We discuss in detail the evidence for and against the view that, at least eventually, Watson rejected outright the very existence of mental images.  We also discuss in detail whether or not Knight Dunlap was the crucial influence on his eventual rejection of mental images.  Finally we consider whether Watson’s rejection of mental images was bolstered by some personal incapacity as regards imaging or whether his rejection was more like a form of ‘ideological blindness.’

Two related resources are also included below.

Continue reading “The First Modern Battle for Consciousness”