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A New Twist in the Sad Saga of Little Albert
February 19, 2012 1:59 PM   Subscribe

A relatively new twist in the sad saga of Little Albert is challenging the traditional understanding of the already troublingly unethical classical experiment.

"The experiment was conducted by John Watson in 1920 and was part of the psychologist’s attempt to prove that infants are blank slates and therefore infinitely malleable. It has been recounted in countless papers and textbooks. One of the longstanding mysteries about the experiment, the identity of Little Albert, was apparently solved in 2010 by Hall P. Beck, a psychologist at Appalachian State University. He and his co-authors argued that Little Albert was Douglas Merritte, the son of a wet-nurse who worked at the Johns Hopkins University, where the experiment was carried out. Merritte died in 1925 at age six from convulsions brought on by hydrocephalus (also known as “water on the brain”).

Now comes another twist–one that, if accurate, would change how the Little Albert experiment is viewed and would cast a darker shadow over the career of the researcher who carried it out.

A paper published this month in the journal History of Psychology [ABSTRACT]
makes the case that Little Albert was not, as Watson insisted, “healthy” and “normal.” He was probably neurologically impaired. If the baby indeed had a severe cognitive deficit, then his reactions to the white rat or the dog or the monkey may not have been typical–certainly reaching universal conclusions about human nature based on his reactions wouldn’t make sense. The entire experiment, then, would be a case of a researcher terrifying a sick baby for no valid scientific reason (not that using a healthy baby would have been ethically hunkydory).

But what makes it worse, the authors of the paper argue, is that Watson must have known that Little Albert was impaired. This would turn a cruel experiment of questionable value into a case of blatant academic fraud.
"
posted by Blasdelb (28 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
he entire experiment, then, would be a case of a researcher terrifying a sick baby for no valid scientific reason

Happy Sunday, everyblarrrggghhhghhhhh!
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:05 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sunday, gloomy Sunday.
posted by Nomyte at 2:09 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Happy to see the "Eugenics, Anti-Eugenics" tags on this post.
posted by rebent at 2:10 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's even worse!

At one point, doctors note that the baby’s meningitis was the result of the procedures performed at the hospital. From the paper:

This is frank admission that the near-lethal infection that so devastated Douglas’s early development and, we believe, diminished his responsivity, was iatrogenic [caused by treatment or examination]. We have not been able to determine the exact nature of this iatrogenic causation; presumably, the infection “was caused” accidentally (e.g., via improper needle sterilization), but we cannot exclude the possibility that the causation was experimental (i.e., Douglas may have been used for research by investigators other than Watson).

posted by Wordwoman at 2:16 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Clearly, Fear Factor will have to feature exclusively healthy baby contestants from here on out if we're to learn anything at all.
posted by cmoj at 2:18 PM on February 19, 2012


The music just blows the seriousness of the issue for me. I feel like I should be wearing a straw hat and candystripped jacket making balloon animals.

The entire experiment, then, would be a case of a researcher terrifying a sick baby for no valid scientific reason (not that using a healthy baby would have been ethically hunkydory).

Yeah, pissed me off as soon as he intentionally scared the baby.

Because wet nurses were of low social status, and because she worked for the institution itself, she may have felt unable to turn down a request for her baby to be used in Watson’s experiment.


...minute ago I thought I was about as pissed off as I was going to be.

If it yielded scientifically useful results, then it wasn’t cruel. These are Watson’s words: “They will be worth all they cost if through them we can find a method which will help us remove fear.”

In an unconscious state there is no fear. Pummeling Watson's dome then, would not have been cruel.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:23 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Any experiment showing humans are blank slates is extremely suspect. Blank Slatism isn't even mathematically possible. Many of the problems the brain is asked to solve are insufficient constrained to admit "blank slate solutions". Assumptions must be made about everything from vision to language. Those assumptions are encoded genetically.
posted by DU at 2:29 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


You know, it's interesting that you posted this link because I came here directly from having read a chapter by Robert Epstein about training animals to mimic human's creative problem solving abilities. Epstein was a colleague of B. F. Skinner, who was a successor of sorts to Watson.
posted by rebent at 2:44 PM on February 19, 2012


This is an interesting discussion, but I'm going to have to limit myself to the printed word this go around. Even reading about deliberately making a baby afraid twists my heart most severely. The fact that he was probably ill only makes it all the worse. I can't bring myself to watch it unfold without falling into a serious funk.

Creepy humans.........
posted by but no cigar at 3:07 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Missing the 'alchemy' and 'quackery' tags.
posted by borges at 3:17 PM on February 19, 2012


First do no arm.. or was it serve and protect?
posted by francesca too at 3:18 PM on February 19, 2012


Wow, I had never heard of this. Wow, I really wish I still had never heard of this [shudder].
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:26 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


The things unethical doctors have done to people in the name of research...
posted by BlueHorse at 3:40 PM on February 19, 2012


First do no arm.. or was it serve and protect?

I think it was "Never oppose an OCP officer."

Related human behavioral experiments in cruelty: The Monster Study, courtesy of my alma mater.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:41 PM on February 19, 2012


Any experiment showing humans are blank slates is extremely suspect. Blank Slatism isn't even mathematically possible. Many of the problems the brain is asked to solve are insufficient constrained to admit "blank slate solutions". Assumptions must be made about everything from vision to language. Those assumptions are encoded genetically.

I'd argue (and have argued) exactly the opposite -- yes, many assumptions are necessary for even minimum brain functionality, but there isn't room in the genome to encode even a small fraction of those assumptions. The complexity of the cortical wiring is five orders of magnitude larger than the genetic code. Therefore those assumptions must be picked up, as in the case of precocial birds imprinting on their future mate figures, via experience. Genetic triggers probably do have a lot to do with when we become ready to encode various important patterns, but when you look at the math via information theory it's kind of ridiculous to think that there is any place in the genome for micro-wiring of the retina and V1-V5, for example.
posted by localroger at 4:55 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Any experiment showing humans are blank slates is extremely suspect. Blank Slatism isn't even mathematically possible. Many of the problems the brain is asked to solve are insufficient constrained to admit "blank slate solutions". Assumptions must be made about everything from vision to language. Those assumptions are encoded genetically."

Watson's body of work wasn't so much trying to prove that we start out with no inborn assumptions, but that we all start out with roughly equivalent assumptions which, in the analogy, formed the slate that experience wrote on. He, as well as the behaviorist discipline of psychology that he founded, were among the most stubborn and essential opponents of the growing 'science' of Eugenics. His goal was to prove that upbringing and not genes were responsible for things like intelligence, morality, and industry. This is the quote of his that is usually dragged out to explain his position,
    "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one 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. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years."
I suppose it is easy to mistake is aims now that many, though certainly not all, of the positions he took are considered axiomatic and many of the ideas he fought against are entirely discredited. However, I think it would be also be another mistake to underestimate his importance, the rest of the twentieth century might have looked a lot darker without him.

None of this is intended to, much less could, excuse even the classical understanding of how fucked up the Little Albert experiment was, much less the added horror and fraud of what we now know. However, I still think it is important to keep in mind how much we might owe to the perverse drive of John Watson as well as little Douglas Merritte for the example he provided, even if it was fundamentally fraudulent.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:05 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Any experiment showing humans are blank slates is extremely suspect. Blank Slatism isn't even mathematically possible. Many of the problems the brain is asked to solve are insufficient constrained to admit "blank slate solutions". Assumptions must be made about everything from vision to language. Those assumptions are encoded genetically.

I'd argue (and have argued) exactly the opposite -- yes, many assumptions are necessary for even minimum brain functionality, but there isn't room in the genome to encode even a small fraction of those assumptions.


..which is why experiments about this have to happen. They just shouldn't involve human children, especially ones obtained with dubious consent and then experimented to death.
posted by Jilder at 5:05 PM on February 19, 2012


Any experiment showing humans are blank slates is extremely suspect. Blank Slatism isn't even mathematically possible. Many of the problems the brain is asked to solve are insufficient constrained to admit "blank slate solutions". Assumptions must be made about everything from vision to language. Those assumptions are encoded genetically.

You are basically re-arguing debates that took place fifty years ago. The main reason why your position is so obvious to you is that you were brought up in a world where this school of thought gained prominence and its opponents declined in scientific stature.
posted by Nomyte at 5:27 PM on February 19, 2012


So, here's our daughter a couple days ago with a toy spider. This was one of the first times she'd ever seen it, yet she had an almost instinctive dislike of it. I wonder why it took this long for people to be suspicious of Little Albert's initial lack of reaction.
posted by odinsdream at 7:33 PM on February 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


"So, here's our daughter a couple days ago with a toy spider. This was one of the first times she'd ever seen it, yet she had an almost instinctive dislike of it."

I hope you got IRB approval for the use of that arachnid analogue, seriously though that was the most adorable thing ever.

"I wonder why it took this long for people to be suspicious of Little Albert's initial lack of reaction."

There was a pretty instant skepticism from Watson's many detractors, but you've got to keep in mind that most of the people in academia didn't actually interact with kids at all, and certainly didn't have such clear memories of their own early childhoods.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:42 PM on February 19, 2012


Another Little Albert who knew no fear.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:08 PM on February 19, 2012


Oh, John Titor, hear my prayer: punch this guy in the dick, again and again, forever and ever, amen.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:15 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Having learnt a rather sanitised history of Behaviorism in school, I had never heard of the Little Albert experiments. However, I now know where Aldous Huxley got his inspiration for the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre of "Brave New World".

And yes, these details make an already profoundly unethical experiment even more disgusting. In particular, the situation of the baby's mother and how she was probably coerced into agreeing with the experiments shows that society already had, at the time, methods of conditioning and psychological manipulation as effective as, yet much more subtle than, the crude devices of Huxley's "Brave New World".
posted by Skeptic at 1:08 AM on February 20, 2012


Doing fucked-up experiments on kids somehow makes me think of Toddlers & Tiaras.
posted by exogenous at 6:22 AM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Man this is probably going to make people hate me, but ... While doing this to a sick kid is definitely abysmal morality, I have less issue with the actual experiment as planned. Yes, not actually deconditioning the child was a big failure, and the questionable consenting of the mom deserves some major questioning, as does using this particular child in the experiment. However, that being said, the experiment did do a lot to open up a different understanding of how fear works, and understanding of the conditioning of fear has done a lot to allow us to break people of their fears, including very damaging fears that seriously impact people's lives. It's very unfortunate that the whole basis of that point of view comes into question with the questionable decisions that Watson made in using this child, but I don't think we can dismiss the whole concept of the experiment as being completely not worthwhile or horrendously unethical.
posted by katers890 at 7:29 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


katers890,

The recent paper that is the ultimate source for this FPP contends that results for the Little Albert experiment were not only meaningless due to his cognitive and visual impairments, but possibly even intentionally so. Just a few comments up thread you can see odinsdream's failure to repeat Watson's control experiment that established the baseline lack of fear, which is in line with our modern understanding of childhood development.

In the end the false result bolstered what ended up being the correct position in opposition to eugenic principles, but the experiment itself was the result of callous manipulation of the truth.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:17 AM on February 20, 2012


Blasdelb, I don't disagree with you on how the story turned out. However, there are a lot of sentiments in the thread (and in the general debate about the experiment before this information came to light) that the basic premise of the experiment is inherently unethical. That is what I disagree with. How the study ended up being conducted, is obviously very flawed on many levels (and this shows some new information of how deep that was), however, that doesn't mean that experiments like this should never been performed, assuming they are performed as intended (ie. with fully informed consent of the parents, appropriate steps taken to reverse any negative effects taken afterwards, and using healthy children (unless specifically studying some disease or abnormality)). Many experiments involve a certain component of risk and long term problems for participants, some physical, some psychological. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't do them, or that we should restrict them only to grow adults or animals (though many people would disagree with using animals at all as well). Doing so profoundly limits what we can learn. And yes, I do practice what I preach. My 2 year old has been involved in many studies (including a vaccine trial) that I deemed worth the risk after appropriate consenting and research.

The Little Albert study has major problems, but at its core, I don't find it inherently unethical, and that was my point.
posted by katers890 at 10:39 AM on February 20, 2012



The levels of approval researchers have to go through now to conduct research on human participants are quite immense. I work in a higher ed. institution and even sending off a survey to the student body for voluntary participation requires IRB approval and an informed consent blurb about the possible consequences of participating in the survey.

Something like what Watson did these days would not only require several levels of IRB approval and well-laid out informed consent, but would also require pre and post counseling for the parents and more than likely several observations by people not associated with the research to make sure that the research IS being done as laid out.

But in the 1920s, these protections for research subjects not only didn't exist but would have been UNHEARD OF. The mother's consent to these experiments wasn't really consent --- she was probably bullied into it by Watson and others or taken advantage of because of her socio-economic position. Or outright lied to her about what they would be doing. If anything, you can't call her consent suspect as much as it probably would have been forced from her. And while I don't want to make this association, but it probably wasn't any different than how sexual assault would have been treated at the time.

Researchers simply CAN'T do what Watson and others did these days. Or, they can (see Wakefield and his unethical vaccine study), but it then brings questions into the methodology and therefore the results of the experiment. And not only that, but doing so will result in penalties such as losing one's job and license to practice (see Wakefield). There are consequences these days to doing what Watson did nearly 100 years ago. And I think scientific researchers have realized what consequences a poorly executed experiment can have on the world (see Wakefield) even after those consequences have been doled out that there is an abundance of caution in going forward with such experiments.

All this to say, Watson was probably more dedicated to his beliefs than to science, and he fit the experiment to the results he wanted rather than employ science in detecting results.
posted by zizzle at 8:07 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


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