Remembering Little Albert


The latest issue of American Psychologist has a very interesting story about the search for John Watson’s baby Albert. Remember from your Psych 101 class that John Watson, a behaviorist at Johns Hopkins in the 1920s, attempted to condition the infant to be afraid of white rats by pairing scary sounds with the presentation of the rat. Most every history of psychology tells the story how his condition fear generalized to other furry objects.

For a couple of generations the story ended there. Myths held that the mother took the child away out of her anger; that Watson later deconditioned him. Neither are true. But these researchers decided to spend a great deal of time and energy seeing if they could discover who he was. With Watson burning his own notes before his death, they didn’t have much to go on.

I won’t relay all the details here but suffice it to say they likely discovered who Albert was (Douglas Merritte) and who his mother was (Arvilla, a wet nurse who lived/worked at the university as a wet nurse after becoming pregnant out-of-wedlock for the second time).

Sadly, the boy died before he turned seven (unclear but maybe due to meningitis). So, we haven’t any knowledge of the impact of Watson’s research on him.

What I find amazing is that it was considered ethical to seek and reveal this information in today’s American Psychologist. We are called to provide the highest standards in clinical and research settings, which include anonymity. Why was it okay to reveal this information now when the person in question isn’t able to determine whether he would want this information released. Maybe existing relatives helping with the search gave permission.

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Filed under Historical events, History of Psychology, Psychology

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