Fear is something that we have all experienced at some point in our lives. It is triggered by the expectance of pain or an unrecognizable event. Fear is an emotion, triggered by the amygdalae, the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional reactions. Throughout our lives, that part of our brain will react to different things. As an infant perhaps you were afraid of one of your relatives, as you grew older maybe you were afraid of the dark. As a college student maybe you are afraid of your exams. It feels like a natural reaction when we are scared of something, and it is, it is human nature for fear to be triggered by certain things. But can fear be taught? Can the power of a natural reaction be harnessed and exerted whenever presented with a specific situation? And lastly, is there an ethical way for us to find that out? Ethical or not, I introduce you to the Conditioning of Little Albert Experiment.
The “Little Albert Experiment” took place in the early 20th century, performed by John B. Watson and a graduate student of his at Johns Hopkins, Rosalie Raynor. They hypothesized that following the procedure of classic conditioning, they could condition “little Albert” to fear things that normally go without fear from children.
“Around the age of nine months, Watson and Rayner exposed the child to a series of stimuli including a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey, masks and burning newspapers and observed the boy’s reactions. The boy initially showed no fear of any of the objects he was shown. The next time Albert was exposed the rat, Watson made a loud noise by hitting a metal pipe with a hammer. Naturally, the child began to cry after hearing the loud noise. After repeatedly pairing the white rat with the loud noise, Albert began to cry simply after seeing the rat.”(psychology.about.com)
Teaching an adult to fear something such as a white furry animal would prove much more difficult than an infant. For the most part, adults know how to rationalize, to decide whether a situation truly poses a threat to them or not. This is beyond an infant’s mental ability, which is why it was much easier to teach this fear to “little Albert”. I believe that the hypothesis that one can be conditioned to fear was definitely proven by this experiment. Although I think the hypothesis is very age specific. An important third variable for an experiment like this could definitely be age. As I mentioned before, an adult would have entirely different results than an infant, making age a very vital component in such an experiment.
Watson and Rayner also raised serious ethical concerns. First of all, they were unable to reverse the effects of their experiments on the baby. He moved away with his mother before they even had the chance. What was to become of “little Albert”? The effects could have had a strange and troubling effect on him later in life. As I said before, the experiment being done to an infant was vital, seeing as an adult would react completely different. But if the conditioning was so intense that it lingered with him it could have effects well into adulthood. Memories from being an infant are difficult to recall, some psychologists have even given the inability to remember early events a name; infantile amnesia. But recently, there has been increasing belief that emotional events can be recalled much easier: “…there has been increased awareness about the role of emotion in the modulation of memory, accompanied by the discovery that certain brain structures like the amygdala are specialized for emotional learning. Moreover, some researchers have found that high levels of stress may actually benefit recall. The links between emotion, stress, and memory have led scientists to wonder whether there might be less infantile amnesia associated with traumatic childhood events.”(brainconnection.brainhq.com) Testing on an adult “little Albert” would have been the best way to test this hypothesis, but would most likely prove to be just as unethical as it was when he was an infant. But regardless of ethics it would have been impossible to do so, seeing as he died at just age 6.
In conclusion, Watson and Rayner concluded that their hypothesis was correct, and they could condition “little Albert” to fear something irrational. Although their experiment was riddled with third variables such as age and mental ability. The experiment also is viewed widely as unethical, they taught an infant to be afraid of irrational things such as white fluffy animals, that he was previously unafraid of. Had the baby lived past 6 years old, the experiment could have proved life altering seeing as they did not attempt to reverse or reduce the effects of the emotional conditioning. Although the experiment is considered extremely controversial, almost 100 years later it is still discussed in most psychology courses across the United States. The memory of the Conditioning of Little Albert lives on.
Here is a link to Little Albert reacting to different animals and at the end a white mask worn by Watson, largely due to his manufactured fear of white or fluffy things.