Solving the mystery of ‘Little Albert’

Almost every psychology student has met the pseudonymous infant who was the subject of a famous experiment by John B. Watson

Bad behaviour

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He is one of the most famous babies in history, but until recently his real name was unknown. Almost every undergraduate who takes a psychology course has met “Little Albert,” the pseudonymous infant who was the subject of a famous experiment by John B. Watson (1879-1958). Watson founded the theoretical school of “behaviourism,” which sought to reduce psychology to observable laws, excluding interior mental states altogether, and considered the mind to be infinitely suggestible and plastic. In the “Little Albert” experiment, filmed in 1920, Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, showed how a baby who was unafraid of a white rat could be conditioned to fear it; they showed “Albert” the rat several times while clanging an iron bar behind his head. After a few repetitions of this, the sight of any white fur would make Albert wail.

Albert is still in the textbooks, though nowadays he is used as often to discuss ethics as he is to introduce the concept of conditioning. Watson’s marriage and career exploded just weeks after he filmed Albert, when it became public that his assistant was also his girlfriend. Forced to flee Johns Hopkins University, Watson did not “decondition” Albert or follow up the experiment. Toward the end of his life he even burned his personal papers in a fit of nihilism.

So what happened to Albert? Anyone who reads about the experiment has surely wondered. Did he go on to live a long life, cringing at mink coats throughout?

In 2009, after a long march through libraries and census records, psychologists Hall Beck and Sharman Levinson discovered the sad truth: “Albert” was almost certainly Douglas Merritte (1919-1925), the son of a Johns Hopkins wet nurse, whose Maryland death certificate says he died of hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”), after acquiring meningitis three years earlier. This hard-earned finding seemed to represent the end of a long mystery, but has instead led to a surprising sequel.

Beck and Levinson’s paper took Douglas Merritte’s death certificate at face value. But something was nagging at Beck. Watson’s paper on Little Albert emphasized how “normal, healthy, [and] well-developed” he was, as do undergrad textbooks. But the Albert footage reminded Beck of developmentally disabled children he had seen in his own career. Could Watson have used a brain-damaged baby to verify the core principle of his behaviourism? And could he have done so knowingly?

In a paper published Jan. 23 in History of Psychology, Beck and University of California at Santa Barbara psychologist Alan Fridlund say yes. Fridlund read the Beck-Levinson paper and found it odd that meningitis would take three years to kill a child in the pre-antibiotic era. When he googled video of Albert/Douglas, he independently had the same reaction as Beck. Albert, filmed late in his first year of life, has slow reaction times. His motor skills are poor. He doesn’t make eye contact with the adults around him or “consult” their emotional reactions.

Other child-development experts shown the video without introductory context remarked to Fridlund on Albert’s impassiveness, making notes like “very primitive scooping.” One said, remarkably, “What bothers me the most … there is no startle to animals . . . There’s something already gone wrong.” The key finding of the experiment, viewed without preconceptions by a modern neurologist, turns out to be a sign of its dubiousness.

When they checked with Douglas Merritte’s family, Beck and Fridlund were stunned to learn that Douglas died without ever being able to walk at all. Then new historical records from Johns Hopkins appeared. They confirmed the identification of Albert with Douglas, established that Douglas was dreadfully ill almost from birth, proved that his hydrocephalus was definitely congenital, and made it nearly impossible to believe that Watson did not lie about Douglas’s health. The Little Albert experiment is a classic of psychology that always implied child abuse, justifiable only in old-school terms by its scientific “value.” Now there seems to be no defence left at all.

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