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.