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Ginger Ross Breggin

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Study the Research? Or the Researcher?

Posted: 01/27/2012 6:42 pm

A paper just published in the journal History of Psychology provides a fresh look at one of the most often-discussed early studies of human behavior.

The study, referred to as the "Little Albert Experiment" was performed by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner in 1920 while they were with Johns Hopkins University. Watson took 9-month-old baby Albert B. and set out to study how an infant's reactions might be conditioned. He exposed the baby to a white rat which was allowed to approach and climb on the child, who had little reaction. Then Watson exposed the child to the rat while making a loud smashing sound, resulting in the infant crying. After several exposures to simultaneous rat views accompanied by the raucous sound, the baby began to cry upon seeing the rat, even with no sounds. From this study, Watson concluded humans were impressionable and could be deeply manipulated. Generations of psychology students have read the "Little Albert" experiment. The experiment has often been used as a spring board for ethics discussions.

Watson established the psychological school of behaviorism in America. In 1924 he boasted: "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specialized world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee you to take any one of them at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select -- doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors."

Now, in a splendid example of first-class historical investigation, the authors of "Little Albert: A Neurologically Impaired Child" have exposed Watson's study as fraudulent and even more unethical than it appeared on its face. This new paper documents the discovery that Albert B. was actually a child named Douglas Merritte. Young Douglas, the son of a wet nurse who worked at Johns Hopkins University, was a very sick child, born with hydrocephalus, infected with meningitis (probably from earlier experiments or treatments at Hopkins) and suffering from severe vision impairment.

The so-called "normal" human research specimen could barely see, was deeply cognitively impaired and desperately ill. Young Douglas only lived until the age of six. Yet this child's non-reactions and reactions were exhibited as examples of normal human behavior and development. The Chronicle of Higher Education offers an in-depth analysis and discussion of these revelations including a statement from one of the investigators, Alan Fridlund, saying he had reached the "nearly inescapable conclusion that [Watson] knew of Albert's condition and intentionally misrepresented it."

So perhaps we need to consider human nature from a new angle. Instead of studying the research subject, perhaps we need to ponder the researcher, himself.

What does the behavior of John B. Watson teach us about human beings, behavior, ethics, morals and science? Although well beyond the scope of a single blog, it deserves extensive and sober examination. As my husband, Peter R. Breggin M.D. says, "The great misfortune of science is that it has to be conducted by people."

Watson and his research assistant Rosalie Rayner performed the "Little Albert" experiments shortly before Watson was fired from Johns Hopkins University, after he was exposed by his wife for having an affair with Rayner. Watson and Rayner married after his divorce and Watson continued to be a giant figure in the developing field of behaviorism but went to work in the private sector. By 1924, Watson was becoming influential in another new field as a vice president of one of the largest advertising agencies of the day.

So Watson studied how to manipulate human beings. And then he put his newly-gained insights to practical use. And to this day, we are all to one degree or another, his guinea pigs.

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