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Little Albert Experiment as an Example of Classical Conditioning

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John Watson (1878 – 1958), an American psychologist who was deeply influenced by a Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov, who is also a behaviourist. Watson further developed his ideology towards psychology mainly based on Pavlov’s works. Watson is known for his famous yet controversial experiment, the Little Albert experiment, which is an example of classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning was demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov, hence it also called the Pavlovian conditioning. Classical conditioning basically means to link two stimuli (a potent stimulus and a neutral stimulus) together and generate a new response by the organism through a learning process. The process can be divided into three stages (Mcleod, n.d.a; Cherry, n.d.a):

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  • Stage 1 – before conditioning, an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) will produce an unconditioned response (UCR) by the studied object. UCS is a stimulus that would naturally generate a response, while UCR is a response that is generated normally without learning, responding to that particular stimulus. This means that the organism will generate a normal and neutral response that is paired with the specific stimulus without any forms of learning. A neutral stimulus (NS), which will have no effect towards the organism, would also be given to the object in this stage
  • Stage 2 – conditioning, which is also the learning stage. Through a series of sessions or trails, the object would undergo the process of learning, and associate the UCS with the NS and NS is now the conditioned stimulus (CS).
  • Stage 3 – after conditioning, as UCS is now associated with the CS, the organism will produce a new response, the conditioned response (CR), which is triggered by the CS.

The classical conditioning had only been demonstrated on animals by Pavlov back then. When Watson first read about the experiment, he would like to find out whether this would also work on humans. Therefore, he designed the Little Albert experiment to find out the answer.

In his experiment, he chose a 9-month old infant, named him as Little Albert. Before the experiment, Little Albert’s behaviours and emotions towards different stimuli were first studied, such as white rat, rabbit and cotton wool. At this time, Albert behaved normally and even played with the rat. (Yogi, 2014)

In the first part of the experiment, a white rat was put in front of Little Albert in the room. Initially, Albert touched the rat and even played with it. Later, whenever Albert touched the rat, the technician hit the steel rod behind him to produce a loud noise. Albert was frightened by the loud noise. The technician hit the steel rod again when Albert tried to play with the rat. Eventually, Albert was frightened and cried. Afterwards, whenever the rat was placed near Albert, even though steel rod was not clanged, Albert began to cry and moved away from the rat. (Yogi, 2014)

In the second part of the experiment, Albert was brought back to the lab a few days later. Toy blocks were first given to Albert and he played happily with the blocks. Next, the technicians replaced the toy blocks with the white rat. Albert began to cry and ran away from it. After that, toy blocks were given back to him and he began to play with them happily again. This repeated and the rat was replaced by other stimuli each time, including rabbit, dog and cotton wool. The loud noise was also applied when Albert touched the stimuli. Finally, each time when one of the stimuli was given to Albert, he cried and crawled away from it even he did not hear the loud noise from the steel bar. And when the toy blocks were given back to Albert, he played happily with the blocks. This part of the experiment was also carried out two times in two different rooms, one was dark and smaller while the other one was bright and large. (Yogi, 2014; Watson & Rayner, 1920)

And in the last part of the experiment, Albert was brought back to the lab a month later. The stimuli were showed to him again and he began to cry and crawl away whenever the stimuli were brought to him. (Yogi, 2014)

After this experiment, Watson proved that Little Albert was conditioned through “learning”. Albert associated the white rat with the loud noise, hence he had the feeling of fear whenever he saw the rat, which was the same feeling as from the loud noise. What surprised Watson was that the fear of Albert further developed and associated with other furry objects, such as the rabbit and the fur coat. (Watson & Rayner, 1920)

Watson believed the Little Albert experiment proved that conditioning worked on humans as well. He suggested that humans’ behaviours and emotions vary are due to the different experiences and different ways of learning we received, but not from the variations in genes. He once even said that he could train any infants regardless of their race and abilities into any type of specialists, such as doctors and lawyers, through behaviourism. (Mcleod, n.d.a)

The result of his experiment was published in 1920. But soon after, it received a lot of criticisms. First, people suggested that the experiment failed to develop an objective way to determine Albert’s emotions and behaviours, but only rely on the subjective interpretation of Watson. (Cherry, n.d.b) This experiment also led to ethical consideration. Albert left the hospital soon after the experiment, hence Watson did not have time to apply treatment to decondition Albert. Hence Albert was experiencing phobia towards white rats and furry objects, which was not pre-existed. (GoodTherapy, 2015) Also, people believed Albert’s mother was not informed about the details of the experiment and the condition of Albert after the experiment. (Burgemeester, n.d.) This is also the main reason which makes this experiment so controversial.

Although Watson’s experiment has lots of criticisms, he himself contributed a lot to psychology. He was deeply influenced by the thinking and the work that Ivan Pavlov did. In 1913, he published the Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It”, which outlined the main features of his own philosophy towards psychology – behaviourism. (Oelze, n.d.) He argued that mind or consciousness could never be objectively measured or defined. In fact, he strongly believed that psychology was a study about controlling and understanding human behaviour. His idea of behaviourism later became the mainstream of psychological studies. Behaviourism contributed to understanding the process of learning. Conditioning also helped us to explain the moral and gender development, and language development. (Mcleod, n.d) Hence throughout his life, he only focused on studying human reactions and behaviours in different situations and scenarios.

However, as more and more biological studies have been carried out, psychologists began to believe that our behaviours all come from internal mental causes. They believe our genetic make-up do influence our own behaviours. (Mcleod, n.d.b) Since then, psychological studies focus on the mental side of human. Behaviourism began to decline in psychology in the 1950s. Even though behaviourism is no longer the mainstream in studying psychology, many of the ideas and concepts of it still apply nowadays, especially in clinical application, such as behaviour therapy and behaviour modification, these are applications of conditioning. (Cherry, n.d.c)

His work also helped in developing more ethical and well-designed experiments in modern psychology. Back then, there were no guidelines on how an experiment should be carried out properly, hence this came out with the Little Albert experiment and other controversial experiments such as the Stanford Prison Experiment. People began to argue that psychological experiments are not safe and ethical to carry out. They believe all these experiments do physically and mentally harm to people who participated. These experiments pushed forward to make psychological researches more ethical. Therefore, psychological associations have taken measures to make sure all researches have met the minimum ethical requirements. The British Psychological Society (BPS) has developed the BPS Code of Conduct. Proposals of the researches have to be submitted to the ethical committee. They have to be approved by the committee board before any further action of the research can be carried out. This committee act as a monitoring role, to make sure that the experiments are well-designed and meet the ethical requirements. This also helped to increase the quality of researches. (Burgemeester, n.d.)

Watson’s experiment is no doubt to be one of the most significant experiments in psychology. Despite that fact that it was so controversial, his work has contributed a lot in the early stage of psychology, setting up the foundation of psychology. Nowadays, psychology has become more developed and contributed a lot in understanding human behaviours, while modern psychological concepts and applications are also influenced by Watson’s ideology. John Watson has definitely contributed a lot to the development of psychology.

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