The behaviorist, John Watson, believed that humans are born with the ability to emotionally respond involuntarily to only a few stimuli. For example, infants may feel joy when held but not when they are the winners of an enormous cash prize; and infants may feel rage when they are very hungry but not when a brother makes fun of them. Watson claimed that, over the course of our lives, we acquire the ability to emotionally respond involuntarily to an enormous range of additional stimuli. For instance, infants respond involuntarily with distress to an unexpected loud noise — an emotional response that typically is coupled with characteristic movements and intense crying. On the other hand, infants don’t respond with anxiety to the sight of a police car driving behind them, although their parents may. Beginning in infancy, Watson claimed, conditioned stimuli are paired with other stimuli that elicit unconditioned emotional responses because of inborn reflexes. This process continues through infancy, childhood, and adolescence so that, by early adulthood, we have accumulated a large number of conditioned emotional responses to a wide variety of conditioned stimuli. In short, Watson argued that the pairing over our lifespans of a large number of CSs with a smaller number of inborn UCSs is the major determinant of the emotional development of humans.
In order to test his theory, Watson and Rayner (1920) classically conditioned an emotional response of anxiety in an infant they dubbed “Little Albert,” perhaps as a nod to Freud’s case study of “Little Hans.” Because Albert was less than one year old, he had not yet developed fear responses to many of the objects often feared by older children. For example, he showed no fear of a white rat. In order to see if they could get Albert to fear the rat, Watson and Rayner subjected him to the following classical-conditioning procedure (see Figure 1):
Although Albert initially showed no signs of anxiety to the sight of the rat (the CS), when a metal bar was struck with a hammer directly behind his head, thereby causing an unexpected loud noise (the UCS), Albert responded involuntarily with signs of severe distress (the UCR). After several pairings of the CS and the UCS, Albert developed an involuntary response of anxiety (the CR) to the sight of the rat alone. It seemed that Albert’s anxiety had been conditioned to a new stimulus (see video).
This interpretation of Watson and Rayner’s (1920) study formed the basis for the classical-conditioning theory of the development of phobias. As another example of this theory, let’s consider the case of a man who is terrified by flies. It makes no sense to be terrified by flies since flies generally cause no harm. How might classical conditioning cause the development of this phobia? Figure 2 presents one possibility.
In this case, perhaps when he was a boy, the man stumbled upon a smelly and bloody animal carcass buzzing with flies. Startled by the sudden appearance of the decaying body, he felt terror and disgust. And, because the carcass was covered with flies, these two events — the sight and sound (and perhaps touch) of the flies, and the sight and smell of the dead animal — became associated for him. Later, when seeing and hearing flies, he involuntarily felt the learned terror and disgust (the CR) to this CS. Of course, there are other possibilities for how a fly phobia might develop through classical conditioning. Regardless of the specifics, there are two essential points to remember:
- When a neutral stimulus (a CS) is followed repeatedly by a second stimulus (a UCS) that reflexively elicits an emotional response (a UCR), a learned emotional response (a CR) automatically elicited by the CS develops because of the development of an association between the CS and UCS.
- This learning process may lead, in some circumstances, to the development of a mental disorder (a phobia, for example) in which strong emotional reactions are automatically elicited inappropriately by stimuli that would not typically elicit them.
Watson, of course, thought that his theory of conditioned fears (phobias) was superior to that developed by Freud and others. In fact, with respect to their study of Little Albert, Watson and Rayner (1920) suggested (perhaps “tongue-in-cheek”) that:
Freudians twenty years from now, unless their hypotheses change, when they come to analyze Albert’s fear of a seal skin coat — assuming that he comes to analysis at that age — will probably tease from him the recital of a dream which upon their analysis will show that Albert at three years of age attempted to play with the pubic hair of the mother and was scolded violently for it. (We are by no means denying that this might in some other case condition it). If the analyst has sufficiently prepared Albert to accept such a dream when found as an explanation of his avoiding tendencies, and if the analyst has the authority and personality to put it over, Albert may be fully convinced that the dream was a true revealer of the factors which brought about the fear. (p. 14)
Here, Watson & Rayner were referring to the verifiability problem inherent in the psychoanalytic approach — a problem that they believed had been overcome in their behavioristic approach. They seem to have been suggesting that, whereas psychoanalysis might be the approach to adopt if one wishes to hear “fairy tales” about the causes of neuroses (mental disorders characterized by depression and anxiety), behaviorism is the approach to adopt if one wishes to find the “real causes” of these mental disorders.
Beginning in the 1920s, Watson and Rayner’s (1920) study was criticized for its poor design and execution (see Harris, 1979; Samelson, 1980). Two early attempts to replicate the findings were unsuccessful (Bregman, 1934; Valentine, 1930; also see English, 1929). Harris (1979) concluded that:
by itself the Albert study was not very convincing proof of the correctness of Watson’s general view of personality and emotions. In addition to the study’s reliance on only one subject, the experimental stimuli were insufficient to test for generalzation effects, the observers’ accounts were too subjective, and the technology did not exist to permit reliable assessment of emotional responses…; there was insufficient follow-up and there was a confounding of instrumental and classical conditioning paradigms…. These methodological flaws were also apparent to critical reviewers of the day … and surely to Watson and Rayner themselves. However, they are worth emphasizing here because of continuing attempts to integrate the study into the early conditioning literature…. It may be useful for modern learning theorists to see how the Albert study prompted subsequent research…, but it seems time, finally, to place the Watson and Rayner data in the category of “interesting but uninterpretable results.” (p. 158)
Even Watson believed that the results were inadequate support for his theory. Watson and Watson (1921) stated the following in a footnote:
The work at Hopkins was left in such an incomplete state that verified conclusions are not possible; hence this summary, like so many other bits of psychological work, must be looked upon merely as a preliminary exposition of possibilities rather than as a catalogue of concrete usable results. (p. 493; the second author of this paper was Rosalie Rayner, who married John Watson in 1921)
Thus, although Watson and Rayner (1920) is often presented as though it offers “proof” that phobias can be classically conditioned, it is much more accurate to think of it as an interesting study that should serve only as an impetus to further research.
Have We Found Little Albert?
After a long search, Beck, Levinson, and Irons (2009) concluded that Little Albert probably was a boy named Douglas Merritte, who died at the age of 6 years. Their claim, however, has been questioned by some (Powell, 2010, 2011; Reese, 2010; also see Harris, 2011). It’s highly unlikely that we will ever know for certain who Little Albert was.
Study Questions for Section 4-11
- According to John Watson, what causes the development of most of an adult’s emotional responses to stimuli? According to this explanation, what is the role of inborn emotional responses to stimuli?
- What theory were Watson and Rayner (1920) testing in their study of Little Albert?
- Did Little Albert fear rats at the beginning of the study?
- Why did Little Albert fear rats at the end of the study? (In your answer, please give details of the procedure used by Watson and Rayner.)
- How did behaviorists explain the development of mental disorders involving severe disturbances in emotion (neuroses)?
- What did Watson think was wrong with the psychoanalytic approach to explaining neurotic disorders such as phobias? (NOTE: This also was discussed in Section x-x.)
Beck, H. P., Levinson, S., Irons, G. (2009). Finding little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson’s infant laboratory. American Psychologist, 64, 605-614. doi: 10.1037/a0017234
Bregman, E. O. (1934). An attempt to modify the emotional attitudes of infants by the conditioned response technique. The Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology, 45, 169-198. doi.apa.org/?uid=1935-00441-001
English, H. B. (1929). Three cases of the “conditioned fear response.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 4, 221-225. doi: 10.1037/h0072340
Harris, B. (2011). Letting go of little Albert: Disciplinary memory, history, and the uses of myth. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 47, 1–17. doi: 10.1002/jhbs.20470
Powell, R. A. (2010). Little Albert still missing. American Psychologist, 65, 299-300. doi: 10.1037/a0019288
Powell, Russell A. (2011). Research notes: Little Albert, lost or found: Further difficulties with the Douglas Merritte hypothesis. History of Psychology, 14, 106-107. doi: 10.1037/a0022471b
Reese, H. W. (2010). Regarding little Albert. American Psychologist, 65, 300-301. doi: 10.1037/a0019332
Samelson, F. (1980). J. B. Watson’s Little Albert, Cyril Burt’s twins, and the need for a critical science. American Psychologist, 35, 619-625. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.35.7.619
Valentine, C. W. (1930). The innate bases of fear. The Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology, 37, 394-420. Retrieved October 22, 2011, from http://www.usouthal.edu/psychology/gordon/Valentine(1930)_InnateFear.pdf
Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14. Retrieved October 13, 2011, from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Watson/emotion.htm
Watson, J. B, & Watson, R. R. (1921). Studies in Infant Psychology. The Scientific Monthly, 13, 493-515.