He is one of the most famous babies in history, but until recently his real name was unknown. Almost every undergraduate who takes a psychology course has met “Little Albert,” the pseudonymous infant who was the subject of a famous experiment by John B. Watson (1879-1958). Watson founded the theoretical school of “behaviourism,” which sought to reduce psychology to observable laws, excluding interior mental states altogether, and considered the mind to be infinitely suggestible and plastic. In the “Little Albert” experiment, filmed in 1920, Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, showed how a baby who was unafraid of a white rat could be conditioned to fear it; they showed “Albert” the rat several times while clanging an iron bar behind his head. After a few repetitions of this, the sight of any white fur would make Albert wail.
Albert is still in the textbooks, though nowadays he is used as often to discuss ethics as he is to introduce the concept of conditioning. Watson’s marriage and career exploded just weeks after he filmed Albert, when it became public that his assistant was also his girlfriend. Forced to flee Johns Hopkins University, Watson did not “decondition” Albert or follow up the experiment. Toward the end of his life he even burned his personal papers in a fit of nihilism.
So what happened to Albert? Anyone who reads about the experiment has surely wondered. Did he go on to live a long life, cringing at mink coats throughout?
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