For generations, psychology students have been asking the question, “Whatever happened to Little Albert?”, the baby who John B Watson and Rosalie Rayner conditioned to fear furry things back in 1919. Five years ago, it seemed that the question had finally been answered when Hall Beck of Appalachian State University in North Carolina and his colleagues published the results of some intensive archive-snooping. They declared that “Albert B.” (as the baby was called in the original report) had actually been Douglas Merritte, a child who died of hydrocephaly just a few years after the experiment. Now, however, two psychologists in Alberta are disputing that claim, and The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published an article on the matter. Continue reading Who Was Little Albert? The Story Continues…
The October 2012 issue of the American Psychological Association‘s Monitor on Psychology is now online. Included in the issue’s Time Capsule section is a piece by Jamie Chamberlin on the persistent myth that John Watson was fired from Johns Hopkins in 1920, not due to his affair with graduate student Rosalie Raynor, but rather because it was discovered that Watson was conducting research on physiological responses during sexual intercourse. This rumor seems to have originated with psychologist James Vernon McConnell (1925–90) and made its way into numerous of textbooks in the latter part of the twentieth century.
As Chamberlin describes,
It wasn’t until 2001 that the story was seriously investigated. That’s when Benjamin began his probe, eventually working with three graduate students to trace the story through introductory and history textbooks, the Watsons’ divorce record and the correspondence of Watson, Larson, McConnell and others. The research team found that the story stretched and changed, with other versions alleging that Watson and Rayner used a kymograph measuring device during intercourse. McConnell claimed that there was a photo of the instruments Watson used for the sex research. But Benjamin, who traveled to both Hopkins and the Canadian Psychological Association museum where they supposedly hailed from, found no evidence that the instruments existed or had ties to Watson.
At least one textbook regarded the sex research story as gossip, the AP authors found. In the third version of his “History of Psychology” text, psychologist David Hothersall wrote: “A careful examination of Watson’s dismissal and divorce convinced a recent biographer of Watson that there is no evidence that he was dismissed because of alleged experiments concerned with human sexual behavior.” Hothersall omitted the story entirely from his text’s 2004 fourth edition, as did most other authors by that time.
How did a rumor become textbook fodder? “Nothing really sells like sex,” posits Jodi Whitaker, of The Ohio State University, one of Benjamin’s co-authors. “It was a wonderfully salacious story to spread around.”
The full article, “Notes on a Scandal,” can be read online here.
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.
On this day in 1890, the first experimental psychology laboratory in the British Empire opened, at the University of Toronto in Canada. It was the brainchild of James Mark Baldwin, who had been hired just a few months earlier in the face of immense public opposition by those who believed the school should hire Canadians only. The controversy was settled when the Premier of Ontario agreed to hire a Canadian at the same time, James Gibson Hume (see Green, 2004). Continue reading First Psychology Laboratory in the British Empire
The British Psychological Society (BPS) Research Digest Blog has reported that the new series of BBC Radio 4’s Mind Changers will begin airing tomorrow (Wednesday, November 28th). The episodes air Wednesdays from 11:00-11:30. You can listen to the programs online.
Tomorrow’s episode is on the Stanford Prison Experiment:
“Claudia Hammond presents a series looking at the development of the science of psychology during the 20th century. When Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison, he had no idea that the resulting behaviour would be so extreme that he would have to abandon the experiment. Over 30 years later, when he saw photos of the abuse in Abu Ghraib, it was with the shock of recognition that he went on to testify in the defence of one of the accused soldiers.”