In 1920, John B. Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, carried out a social experiment that was disturbing and cruel. The Little Albert experiment aimed to demonstrate human conditioning by traumatising an emotionally stable child so much that he developed a phobia.
For this study they chose a nine-month old infant from a hospital referred to as “Albert” for the experiment. Watson followed the same procedures which Pavlov had famously used in his experiments with dogs. At the start of the experiment, Baby Albert was shown a white laboratory rat which he played with. Then, Watson and Rayner made a loud sound behind Albert’s back by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer each time he touched the rat. After several such pairings of the two stimuli, Albert was presented with only the rat. Upon seeing the rat, Albert got very distressed, crying and crawling away. He now associated the white rat with the noise and developed a phobia. The tests didn’t stop there.
Watson and Rayner introduced Albert to a rabbit, a dog, a fur coat and finally “Santa Claus” all of which he displayed signs of fear toward. The experiments lasted for three months, with baby Albert living in a make-shift nursery. No efforts were made in order to desensitise him from his ordeal, and he grew up with the fear of furry animals still installed in him.