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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring/Summer 2014

Little Albert's Impact on Us All
With Hall "Skip" Beck, PhD

By Bradley Cannon, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Several students approached Dr. Hall "Skip” Beck (Appalachian State University, NC) in 2001 to see if he would direct a search for the long-lost infant, Little Albert, who was John B. Watson’s classical conditioning participant from 1920. Little Albert had never been identified despite all prior investigations, so Dr. Beck expected the quest to be a lost cause. If his students had not been so emotionally invested in the idea, he might well have never started the search at all. However, he chuckles at that idea now because new leads were soon uncovered that took him (and many others) closer to Little Albert’s identity than ever before.

With a sense of wonder, Dr. Beck says, "Every time I think we’ve learned what Albert has to teach us, he opens a new door, and we find out that we are closer to the start than the end of our journey.”

In 2009, Dr. Beck, his colleagues, and his students reported the discovery of Douglas Merritte, an infant who had much in common with Little Albert. Douglass Merritte died in 1925, a few years after the attempt to condition Albert (Beck, Levinson, & Irons, 2009). Nevertheless, the journey and its surprises did not end there. Soon afterward, social and clinical psychologist Dr. Alan Fridlund (University of California, Santa Barbara) noticed something strange when he watched the black-and-white videos of Little Albert being conditioned to fear white rats. He quickly e-mailed Dr. Beck to ask how sure he was that the child was healthy, and Dr. Beck acknowledged that he had his suspicions too.

Unfortunately, Dr. Beck had no way to prove Little Albert’s condition, so we encouraged Dr. Fridlund as well as neurologist Dr. William Goldie to pursue the idea. Dr. Beck rightly declares, "I think involving others with unique skillsets is one of the things you’ve got to do.” Indeed, the inclusion of these additional minds led to the discovery that the child in a film long presumed to be Albert was developmentally delayed (Fridlund, Beck, Goldie, & Irons, 2012).

Additionally, Dr. Beck says, "Even apart from taking the health of the child into account, there are many methodological short-comings in Watson and Rayner’s (1920) research that cast doubt on whether they conditioned Albert to fear at all. However, Watson was absolutely correct that emotional conditioning does occur. His concepts were solid even though his procedure was clearly inadequate.”

Over time, hundreds of other investigations have examined similar conditioning. In particular, most will recognize the study conducted by Ivan Pavlov, though some students may not fully grasp the importance of this work.

"A problem that students often encounter when first learning about Pavlov and conditioning is that they fail to recognize how important this type of learning is in their lives. Much of who they are as individuals is determined by Pavlovian conditioning.” He elaborates by giving a few applied examples. "Many of our likes, dislikes, and emotions are acquired via Pavlovian procedures. Even our responses to drugs are impacted by Pavlovian conditioning. If you’re a coffee drinker, just the smell can increase your physiological arousal. Pavlovian conditioning is also a powerful tool used in other areas of psychology such as neurophysiology. Many behavioral therapy techniques such as systematic desensitization and flooding have a significant Pavlovian component.

"It is interesting to me that a poorly conducted inquiry of doubtful ethics would be a landmark in behavioral psychology, a movement that would eventually benefit the lives of millions of people. However, history is not so much about the past as it is about the future. You must look to yesterday to help you understand tomorrow.”

Thus, Dr. Beck asks you to consider the following lesson from the Albert study: "Do you think John Watson would have induced fear in a banker’s son?” Then, to put this question into context, he explains that Little Albert’s mother was a wet nurse. "She survived by providing breast milk to other people’s children, so she was not in a position to refuse any request for tests that were performed upon her son. If her economic position is one of the reasons that her son was chosen by Watson, then we must ask ourselves today if similarly economically disadvantaged children receive a fair opportunity from our society.

"We must also consider that ethical values involve a subjective assessment and change over time. For example, most people today would consider inducing fear in a baby unethical, yet this seems to have provoked little criticism in the 1920s. Today there are a number of prominent ethical issues such as the use of animals in experimentation and whether psychological techniques should be employed in what have been called enhanced interrogations. If you can use a procedure to build a person up, you can probably use it to tear that person down.”

Even 95 years later, John Watson’s research on Little Albert is especially important because of its ability to make us think about our ethics. According to Dr. Beck, "Little Albert’s most precious gift to us is that he helps us better understand John Watson, one of the most creative and influential psychologists of all time. More specifically, Little Albert speaks for the need for an ethical code.”

Success Depends on Who You Ask
Sometimes a person’s most important project is the one that made the most difference in society’s eyes. "However,” Dr. Beck warns, "if you let people’s reactions to your work be the final arbiter, then you’re giving others far too much power over yourself.”

Despite his success with human-computer interaction research, college retention, and the search for Little Albert, the work that he is the most proud of occurred when he directed a behavior therapy program for severe and mentally challenged children. "I never went home from work feeling that it was just another day on the job. And in terms of research, the work that Linda Pierce, Mary Dzindolet, and I conducted in efforts to reduce death by friendly fire was perhaps the most fulfilling. If someone is alive today because of our research, then the breaths that she or he takes more than justifies those investigations.”

Dr. Beck and his students are currently conducting research in three areas. "We’re working to improve the graduation rates of students, we’re conducting further studies on human-computer interaction, and we’re conducting a historical inquiry about the recording of human female sexual response prior to 1936.”

On top of this, Dr. Beck and his students cannot help revisiting the mysteries surrounding Little Albert, which continue to inspire and surprise researchers no matter how many times they believe they have found the truth. "In 2013, two Canadian psychologists and a genealogist discovered a boy named Albert Barger, who was also involved in the infant studies,” he reports. "I would like to believe the next important finding is the research that my students have been doing regarding the reliability of the data reported by Watson and Rayner (1920). That’s quite different than questions regarding the interpretation of data or the depiction of the studies in secondary studies. Instead, my students have been looking at the actual data to determine the accuracy of events reported by Watson and Rayner (1920).

"What I’ve learned to do,” he concludes, "is to look at Watson’s many descriptions of the Albert study as a whole in order to better understand the role of Little Albert in psychology. Watson and Rayner’s (1920) article is one of a number of descriptions Watson provides of the attempt to condition Albert. If we look at them all, we can get a better picture of what happened.”

Listen Up, Psychology Students
"If you think of the great problems besetting our planet such as questions regarding the environment, overpopulation, war, violence, and ignorance—they all have a significant behavioral component,” Dr. Beck insists, having been captivated by the study and future of psychology for over 30 years. "As I am sure both Watson and later Skinner would agree, exclusive reliance on physics, chemistry, and biology will never adequately address these problems. The behavioral component inherent in each of them must be taken into account. As scientists of behavior, we must move forward and take an increasingly prominent role in the emerging new society. That is the obligation of the next generation of psychologists.

"For students interested in historical studies, the first step is to take a history of psychology course and have a general grounding in history. You need to understand how a particular individual or a set of ideas fits within a time period. Unfortunately, we do not typically teach students in historical research techniques as we do with experimental methods. However, I instruct the students in my lab in the application and use of multiple information sources.” He recommends reading a short article by Lizette Royer (2008) to get started learning about archival research.

"To research something historically, we usually have to look at it from a bit of a distance.” In the past, people would not have reacted to Little Albert’s discovery (or any other discovery) in the same way as the members of more recent generations. "One of the great upheavals since I came into psychology is sometimes called the cognitive revolution. I think it would be very interesting to note the social and conditions that brought that about. Behavioral psychology was dominant when I started, but there is far more cognitive research than there used to be. Scholars have written a great deal on the factors stimulating the upsurge in cognitive psychology, but I still would enjoy researching that area. I do not know if I could make any new worthwhile contribution, but I am sure that I would have fun reading the work of others.” Undoubtedly, it will be interesting to see what insight future generations provide about this transition as well.

Throughout the course of Dr. Beck’s career, he feels that psychology has become increasingly exciting as a discipline. "Each generation has an obligation to take this beautiful thing we call psychology, polish it, and pass it along in better condition than they received it,” he says, speaking slowly to choose the words to his conclusion carefully. "I think the challenges facing this generation are greater than those that were facing mine, but I am optimistic that in 2050 they will be able to pass along psychology in better shape than they received it.”

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:0.1037/a0017234

Fridlund, A. J., Beck, H. P., Goldie, W. D., & Irons, G. (2012). Little Albert: A neurologically impaired child. History of Psychology, 15, 302–327. doi:10.1037/a0026720

Royer, L. (2008). Conducting archival research on the history of psychology. In L. R. Miller, R. F. Rycek, E. Balcetis, S. T. Barney, B. Beins, S. R. Burns, … M. E. Ware (Eds.) Developing, promoting, and sustaining the undergraduate research experience in psychology (pp. 203–207). Retrieved April 7, 2014, from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology website

Watson, J. B., & Rayner R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1–14. doi:10.1037/h0069608

Hall "Skip” Beck received his PhD from the University of North Carolina–Greensboro in 1983, specializing in social psychology. He accepted a position in the Psychology Department at Appalachian State University in 1984 and is still happily at that university. For the past decade most of Dr. Beck’s research has focused upon improving student retention; he is a codeveloper of the College Persistence Questionnaire. His other main area of inquiry is human-computer interaction, especially the use of automated devices to reduce fratricide in the military. The search for Little Albert began as a lark, but soon became a passion taking Dr. Beck and his students on a historical journey to John B. Watson’s infant laboratory.

Copyright 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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