Studying psychology, week 7: “Little Albert” experiment & depth perception

The week goes by in a flash.

What happened to “Little Albert”?

The case of “Little Albert” came up in a few lectures already, and is pretty well-known among psychology students.

John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner ran this experiment on a 9-month-old boy referred as “Albert”, they published the results in 1920. They followed the same procedures that Pavlov used to condition dogs, in order to attempt classical conditioning in humans.

Initially, they exposed “Albert” to fluffy objects like a white laboratory rat, a rabbit, and dog, or cotton balls, and he reacted with a natural curiosity. A few months later, they let “Albert” play with the rat again, this time striking a steel bar with a hammer each time he touched the rat. Eventually, he became very scared upon just seeing the rat: The rat had become a conditioned stimulus, and it was causing an emotional, conditioned response. Later on, he generalised his response and became even distressed when he saw other furry objects such as a rabbit or furry dog.

What??!

Yes, that’s what happened. At the time, even Watson himself had “significant concerns”, as he said later, but: “We consoled ourselves with the thought that fear reactions develop anyway and without us, once a child leaves the protected environment of the children’s hospital for the rough adversities of their domestic environment.”

Today, this experiment would be considered unethical. It’s one of unfortunately many cases of unethical, abusive, and harmful psychological research.

Even the value of the research results has come under heavy criticism, as it’s not well documented what happened during the experiment and even the film recording of it can be interpreted differently.

What happened to “Albert”?

A few researchers attempted to identify “Albert” and find out what happened to him. The two main theories are that “Albert” was Douglas Merritte (APA, 2009), who died as a six-year-old, or that he was William Barger, who lived till the age of 87 (American Psychologist, 2014). Both were born around the same time and both children’s mothers worked at the hospital where the experiment was conducted.

More “fun” facts:

  • Rosalie Rayner, his assistant and later wife, played a major role in this research, but her contributions were only acknowledged recently. By the time of the experiment, Watson and Rayner had a secret affair.
  • Later, Watson wrote a parenting book in which he advocated for parents treating their children with lots of strictness: After all, motherly love and affection made children too soft for the world and lowered their odds of success later in life. (It’s worth keeping in mind that this was shortly before the Nazi’s parenting books became popularised as well, who were proponents of a similar style.)

Depth perception in infants

Developmental psychology is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to fun study designs. This week, we discuss development of senses in babies, including seeing. Depth perception is the ability to distinguish the distance between objects and their distance to us. Gibson & Walk did a study in 1960 to determine at what age depth perception develops. They built a “visual cliff”, with acrylic glass covering both the shallow and deep end.

The researchers observed 36 infants, aged 6 to 14 months, crawling on it, with the mother coaxing them. Not hesitating to crawl towards their mother in the shallow part, they refused to cross into the deep end. Depth perception is partly innate, but the majority of the skill develops as babies learn to crawl.

Uni life

The administrators share our exam dates with us. I’ll have two exams at the end of this semester, one in statistics and one in clinical psychology, and I’m starting to write lecture summaries to help me prepare.

I think about the perspective shifts that come from making changes like the one I’ve made. Previously, the majority of my peers and friends were professionals working in, or at least adjacent to, tech. Going to uni has drastically shifted that. My friend circle is expanding to include many people with very different backgrounds and careers, from biologists, to physical therapists, and, of course, psychologists. This whole journey is enriching my life in many more ways than I thought it would.

By Lena

Engineering executive turned leadership coach & consultant, public speaker, and psychology student. Fast walker, avid reader, poetry fan, violinist, pianist in the making, and intersectional feminist. Writes about all the above (and, occasionally, trees).

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