Whatever Happened to Little Albert?

The featured paper is ‘Whatever Happened to Little Albert’ by Ben Harris which is freely available here. I have constructed my own interpretation of the paper below.

An Unethical Study?

Little Albert was approximately 9-months old and was the subject of an experiment which I will argue was unethical. Little Albert was initially able to see a number of animals without any fear e.g a rat, a rabbit and a dog. The researchers, Watson and Rayner wanted to see if they could make Little Albert develop fear of one of these animals and if they could then make him subsequently develop a fear of  many other animals. In the first instance it is a straightforward enough matter to ask ‘Did Albert have the capacity to consent to such an experiment?’ and the answer must quite obviously be that he didn’t. The question then is what role the mother played in the whole matter and from this paper it is unclear. In terms of the ethical argument against the experiment, this is fairly straightforward. Little Albert is not able to consent for himself and so his parents should be taking the decision about his involvement although there is no mention of their awareness in this paper at least. This much is already enough to make the experiment unethical although the mother may have consented to his participation without this information being imparted to us (in the paper). However we can go one step further. It is not unreasonable to suppose that this experiment was causing him distress, and distress that was solely for the purposes of the study. If he had an illness  and the study involved administering an injection that would improve his condition then it is possible to see that the acute distress of the injection would lead to a lowering of his general distress as his condition improved. We are not talking about such a scenario in this experiment. Here the researchers are even unsure of how long his distressed responses will endure nor to what extent they will occur in other situations. In other words, they are conducting an experiment in which his distress is the subject of study and manipulation, to which he has not given consent. What is most concerning however is that his subjective experiences of distress is intended by the experimenters and their intentions are converted into premeditated actions in order to achieve their stated objectives. Were the role-related labels of subject, experimenter and study to be removed, it would not be too difficult to describe this as a form of emotional abuse. In other words, if we simply described the situation of a child being left alone with two strangers who proceed to intentionally provoke distress then it would be all to obvious that this is an abusive situation.

The Immoral Effect

If such a study is obviously unethical then it should be readily apparent to those who hear about the study first or second-hand. There are two effects broadly similar. The first is that such an experiment will not be reproduced as other researchers will object morally to the study design. This invalidates the conclusions that can be drawn from such a study as reproducibility is necessary for confirming or refuting findings. This has further implications for the scientific status of the original study. The second effect is that the write-up of the study is likely to receive the same moral objections and to receive less first-hand inspection and subsequent consequences which would include distortion of information. If this holds, then it follows that this study will be treated differently to other studies which are not considered immoral and should be expected to have a diminished or distorted influence.

The Amplification Effect

If a figure of some influence comments on such a paper, then given their elevated status and the diminished status of the study, their interpretation is more likely to go uncontested as people will be less likely to challenge such interpretations which would involve first-hand sight of the study paper. Thus the interpretation of such a paper, being less likely to be contested, paradoxically forms a more stable component of any theory being developed and in turn would be expected to impact upon the theory similarly.

The Wider Repurcussions of An Immoral Study

Firstly what is striking is the general distortion in reporting of the study that has occurred. Harris accumulates evidence of this distortion in a number of textbooks which in turn influences a generation of students and those listed include

(Bernhardt, 1953)

(Biehler, 1976)

(Boring, Langfeld & Weld, 1948 )

(Calhoun, 1977)

(CRM Books 1971)

(Engle & Snellgrove, 1969)

(Galanter, 1966)

(Gardiner, 1970)

(Goldenberg, 1977)

(Helms & Turner, 1976)

(Hilgard, Atkinson & Atkinson, 1975)

(Kisker, 1977)

(Johnson and Medinnus, 1974)

(McCandless & Trotter, 1977)

(Papalia & Olds, 1975)

(Staats, 1968 )

(Telford and Sawrey, 1968 )

(Weiner, 1977)

(Whittaker, 1965)

In keeping with the amplification effect, we see that Eysenck interprets the study thus:-

‘Albert developed a phobia for white rats and indeed for all furry animals’

Furthermore Seligman who developed preparedness theory, writes that:-

‘Albert became afraid of rats, rabbits and other furry objects’

In these cases, the interpretations have implications for behavioural theory and preparedness theory respectively. It can be seen from the above example that far from science being a detached and objective pursuit of truth, it is necessarily value laden and where such values are ignored, the scientific process can become derailed particularly in those areas of investigation which are most sensitive to the values we choose.  The welcome advent of the Ethics Committee provides a necessary check on science as well as preventing such derailment.


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You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast).


If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail justinmarley17@yahoo.co.uk



The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


  1. Sehr interessanter Artikel den du da gepostet hast. Endlich hab ich das gefunden was ich gesucht hatte. Ich wuerde auch gerne den Feed von deinem Blog abonieren aber leider finde ich diesen nicht. Wo muss ich denn danach suchen?


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