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The Ethics of Watson & Rayner’s Little Albert Experiment

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In 1920, most psychologist are well versed with Sigmund Freud (1856) psychoanalysis theory where the focus is on the unconscious mind rather than the conscious mind. It is built on the idea that human’s behaviour is determined by the experiences from their past that are stored in unconscious mind, unaware of it. However, a new movement known as behaviourism in psychology spearheaded by Pavlov and Watson radically opposed the psychoanalytic theory. Watson hypothesised that emotional response exists because human have been conditioned to respond emotionally to certain stimuli as he believed all human behaviour was a product of learning and conditioning. Watson aimed to demonstrate that specific emotions could be conditioned without affected by internal forces.

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In this experiment, Watson recruited Albert, B at the age of 9 months from a hospital where he was raised as an orphan. He is judged as very healthy both emotionally and physically by the hospital staff. He also shows no sign of fear when being exposed to certain stimuli such as a white rabbit, a dog, a rabbit and mask with and without hair. The materials used in this experiment is the animal Albert was exposed to and a piece of metal bar and a hammer. The experiment was conducted after Albert reached 11 months old. As the experiment began, Albert was presented with the white rat by Watson and his assistant Rayner. Every time Albert reached to touch the rat, the metal was struck which frightened Albert, and this was repeated for three times. After a week, the same procedure was initiated. The process was conducted for seven time in total.

After seven procedures done on Albert, when he is presented with the white rat without accompanied with the loud noise, he reacted with extreme fear and began to cry, turned away from the rat and started crawled away. This proved that a fear had been conditioned within Albert only after a week. Albert’s shared the same fear not only towards the rat but also towards the animal previously he was presented to including the mask with fur. This term is called ‘generalisation’ where the fear is not only limited to the stimuli they been conditioned with.

From this experiment, Watson demonstrated that all human behaviours stem from learning and conditioning and denied the theory that our behaviour stem from unconscious mind. This experiment however had many concerns as it breached the ethical standard by not reconditioning little Albert. Some researchers also criticised Watson’s assumption that these conditioned fears would remain indefinitely (Harris,1979) while some concerned with the experimenter’s treatment on little Albert. An extension from this research is that other emotions such as anger, sadness, joy, surprised, fear may be learned in the same manners. A study employed the Watson’s research (Sullivan & Lewis, 2003) focused on facial expression among infants which can be a great help for adults to communicate with and care for babies. An extreme emotion of fear can produce negative effect known as phobias. A study by Kendler, Karkowski & Prescott (1999) provided evidence a large percentage of the variation in phobias was due to inherited factors which the author concluded that phobias can be learned by an individual’s experiences.hypothesized

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