What is it about?

In 1920, the famous behaviorist John B. Watson once claimed that he and research assistant, Rosalie Rayner, had successfully created a conditioned fear of rats and other furry animals and objects in a young infant by pairing the presentation of the rat with a loud, startling noise. Watson also marketed a film of the study that purported to show Little Albert (as he is now known) reacting fearfully to a range of furry items, including a rat, a dog, a fur coat, and even a Santa Claus mask. A careful scrutiny of the film, however, suggests that Albert's fear of these events was at most relatively weak and well within the normal range for an infant of his age, thereby providing little evidence of conditioning. Our analysis also revealed certain discrepancies in the film which suggest that Watson edited the film to exaggerate Albert's reactions, most likely to maximize the film's impact and attract funding for his research endeavors.

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Why is it important?

The Little Albert study is one of the most famous case studies in the history of psychology. It is often cited as providing strong evidence that fears and phobias are the result of conditioning. More recently, Watson has also been vilified for unethically creating a phobia in a helpless infant. Although critics have long argued that the published accounts of the study actually provide only weak evidence of fear conditioning, these criticisms have been largely ignored. Our analysis of the film, however, confirms that these criticisms are probably correct and that public concerns that Albert acquired a phobia of furry animals and objects are unfounded. Watson editing the film in a way that would increase it "propaganda" value has interesting parallels to the increasing pressure on present-day researchers to "sell" their research findings in order to maintain funding.

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This page is a summary of: Did Little Albert actually acquire a conditioned fear of furry animals? What the film evidence tells us., History of Psychology, May 2021, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/hop0000176.
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