The Journey to Find Little Albert
Since his last interview with Psi Chi, Hall "Skip” Beck, PhD has seen many developments on the project to find Little Albert that he undertook eleven years ago.
"Sometimes in life, we are wrong, and it is absolutely wonderful that we are,” says Dr. Beck in response to his early thought that searching for Little Albert was one of the "worst ideas [he] had heard in years” (Sharp, 2011). "My students were more insightful at the start than I was. Initially, I was hesitant to begin the Albert quest because I felt it was highly unlikely that a child missing for almost a century could be found,” explains Dr. Beck, "but we redesigned the project to learn as much as we could about Watson’s infant studies and in the course of that research, we found the identity of Little Albert.”
Dr. Beck has had some major surprises since his first article was published. "My colleagues, Alan Fridlund, Bill Goldie, Gary Irons, and I discovered that Albert was not the healthy, well-developed child that Watson and Rayner portrayed him to be; rather, he was seriously ill from birth. Albert was hydrocephalic when Watson and Rayner tested him,” says Dr. Beck. Hydrocephalus was, at the time of Watson’s experiments (1920), a fatal illness; the condition causes the cerebral fluids to accumulate inside the skull and puts pressure on the brain, which leads to a deterioration in function and ultimately death if it is not corrected. Today, this condition can be treated by implanting shunts that allow the movement of fluid from one part of the body to another, but in 1920 this procedure had not yet been developed for infants.
When asked about what these new findings indicated about the ethics of the Little Albert investigation, Dr. Beck replied, "For many years, people have questioned whether or not it was ethical for Watson and Rayner to induce fear in an infant. Now that we know Albert was neurologically impaired, the implications of their procedures are even more disturbing,” says Dr. Beck. "Also, if Watson knew the true state of Albert’s health, then he misrepresented his findings in his study. The fraudulent misreporting of scientific data was as indefensible in 1920 as it is today,” explains Dr. Beck.
Indeed, in Watson’s study, he stated that Albert was not only "healthy from birth,” but that he was "one of the best developed youngsters ever brought to the hospital” (Watson & Rayner, 1920). Is it possible that Watson and Rayner did not know that Albert was such an ill child? "It seems very unlikely Watson believed Albert to be healthy. Watson contended that he was an expert in child behavior and tested Little Albert multiple times. How could he not have noticed that the child’s reactions were not typical of a nine month-old? Furthermore, if Douglass Merritte was Albert, as our findings demonstrate, his medical records, which Watson would have had access to, clearly indicate that the infant was terminally ill and neurologically damaged,” reveals Dr. Beck. "Finally, Watson had contact with Albert’s mother and other hospital staff who certainly knew that Albert was a very sick baby. The consequences of these new discoveries have definite implications for Watson and Rayner’s study: "Even if Albert was conditioned to fear furry objects, the generalizability of those findings is seriously called into question,” says Dr. Beck.
Watson and Rayner were not the only psychologists to experience ethical quandaries during the research process; Dr. Beck and his colleagues had their own set of ethical issues to deal with. "The paramount consideration during the first and second studies was to treat Douglas/Albert, first and foremost, as a member of the Iron’s family. Although he is a historical figure, we had to respect the fact that he belonged to someone’s family,” says Dr. Beck. "Another concern was to fairly deal with Watson and Rayner, especially since they are deceased and cannot defend themselves. In viewing their actions, we cannot judge them on the standards of our time, but we must do our best to judge them by the standards of their time,” says Dr. Beck.
"I think there are three types of ethics one must consider when undertaking any project. First, there are the ethics of our discipline, such as the APA Code of Ethics and the regulations of our local IRBs. Second, there are laws with an ethical basis, such as HIPPA, that must be followed. But I believe there is a higher form of ethics and that is one’s own personal beliefs about what is right and wrong,” says Dr. Beck.
Other Research: Current and Future
In his last interview with Psi Chi, Dr. Beck spoke about his current research on college student retention methods. "Thirty or forty years ago, many schools saw college as a crucible, a way of separating the weak from the strong, the worthy from the unworthy. Now, that belief has largely been replaced with the notion that the school’s objective should be to help every student realize their full potential. This change in perspective demonstrates substantial progress,” explains Dr. Beck. "Where I think many schools have floundered is that they employ nonscientific and unsystematic procedures in their efforts to identify students who are at-risk from dropping out. An overreliance on opinion and poorly validated instruments has produced great inefficiency. What we have advocated for is a more scientific approach. That is why my partners and I developed the College Persistence Questionnaire. I believe that people who pursue a scientific approach to retention will provide most of the answers for reducing attrition in the future,” believes Dr. Beck.”
Dr. Beck’s questionnaire yields a probability statement predicting whether or not a student will graduate. The questionnaire also provides advisors, counselors, and faculty members with reasons why a particular student may choose to discontinue his or her education. "If you are a policy maker or administrator concerned with groups, the College Persistence Questionnaire identifies the variables that best distinguish graduates from nongraduates at your school. This information allows for the development of efficient programs meant to rectify those problems,” suggests Dr. Beck. "Often, what happens is administrators hope a certain program will work (e.g., "a "First Year Experience” program), but they but have no data too back up their personal beliefs.”
As for future projects, Dr. Beck’s research on how to reduce friendly fire by monitoring eye movement is still in the pilot stages, but he is very excited about the prospects. "What we’re trying to do is determine when mistakes are going to be made before they are actually committed. In other words, what we hope to do is realize whether people can distinguish if a target is a friendly or an enemy vehicle. If we can do this, we can develop a mathematical equation which could tell us the probability that a person is going to make a correct or catastrophic targeting decision. Such an equation could save lives. I think this is a really novel approach because if we can tell that someone is going to make a mistake before it occurs, that could go a long way in helping with many different tasks. The research looks very promising; it is the type of study where if you can save one life, it is worthwhile,” says Dr. Beck.
Psychologists Impacting the Future
"If you think about the ‘great problems’ that the world confronts, the sciences all make a contribution, but in very different ways. Take the environment for example: The natural sciences can help to develop alternative forms of energy and more efficient ways of disposing waste, but there is a key behavioral element to this problem. To reap the advantages of these technologies, you have to get people to use them, to conserve, and act in ways that benefit society—that task is the domain of psychology. Similarly, there are critical behavioral issues that must be dealt with if we are to successfully combat overpopulation, starvation, ignorance, and many other problems that confront this generation. I believe that psychologists will have an increasingly large say in how we meet the challenges of the next century. This is what I mean when I say what ‘psychologists are making the future’ (Sharp, 2011).To glimpse tomorrow, look at today’s behavioral science.”
Graduate School and Tips for Students
Although graduate school may not be right for everyone, Dr. Beck recommends students question whether or not they really have a passion for the field they are looking into. "If you do not have a fire in your belly, then I would not advise you to apply to graduate school. However, if you have the passion for psychology, graduate school is something you might want to consider,” suggests Dr. Beck. "In fact, it might be the only path to satisfying your professional dreams.”
For those students planning to enter graduate school, a letter of intent is an important step in the application process. "The letter of intent is the first impression you make on someone whose decision could change your entire life. I suggest that you begin with a paragraph about how you became interested in psychology and how it fits into your life goals. Next, discuss the experience you have had beyond the classroom, especially if you have done research as a member of a professor’s laboratory. After all, most professors who train graduate students are researchers. Near the end of the letter, I would target one or two professors, mention their work, and make clear why you are interested in them. They are, amongst other things, trying to determine if there will be good chemistry with you. Above all, ask a professor to read over your letter and to make suggestions. They know best of all what other professors will be looking for,” suggests Dr. Beck.
For students who think graduate school might be the right path, Dr. Beck has a special message for them: "This is a very exciting time to be a behavioral scientist, and I expect that this new generation of psychologists will pioneer new areas and make significant contributions to the resolutions of the great problems that beset our planet.”
Sharp, K. (2011, Summer). Psi Chi Distinguished Lecture Series: Q&A With the 2011 Regional Convention Speakers. Eye on Psi Chi, 15 (4), p.29–30.
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
Fridlund, A. J., Beck, H. P., Goldie, W. D., & Irons, G. (2012, January 23). Little Albert: A neurologically impaired child. History of Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026720
Watson, J.B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned Emotional Reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1-14.