Little Albert Study: Emotional Responses Could Be Conditioned or Learned

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In 1920 John .B. Watson paired up with his graduate student Rosalie Rayner who he later married to carry out an experiment to prove that emotional responses could be conditioned or learned. He believed that environmental factors influence behaviour despite the biological make up of human beings.

Watson and Rayner used an 11 month old baby Albert in the now famously known “Little Albert” study. Albert was a healthy and stable baby at the time of the experiment. When Albert was 9 months old, he was presented with white rats, rabbits and cotton wool but he showed no fears for these objects. However he fearfully responded to loud bangs and noise. These initial tests prompted Watson to find out if the emotional response of fear could be conditioned when the loud noise is paired with a white rabbit or rat.

At 11 months old, little Albert was brought in to a laboratory and was presented with a white rat, as he reached for the rat, Watson struck a steel bar behind Albert’s head and he startled but did not cry. As he tried to reach for the animal the second time and heard the frightening noise, Albert began to cry. This procedure was repeated for more than five times. Then at the mere sight of the white rat alone, Albert cried. Five days later when he was presented with a rabbit, Santa’s coat, dog and Watson’s hair, Albert showed a generalisation of his conditioned response of fear to these objects.

This study prompted Watson to conclude that phobias are most likely conditioned responses. He stated that phobias are either a fear of an original stimulus or the fear has been transferred to other stimuli as one grows older. Watson through his experiment with ‘Little Albert’ believed that conditioned fears persist and modify behaviour throughout life.

The little Albert classical conditioning apparently occurs in our daily lives. Stories abound of how certain behaviours occur as a result of conditioning. These emotional responses can sometimes be either...
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