5 Horrific Psychological Experiments - #5: Little Albert

Josh Clark

Author's note: In my opinion, there are a number of ways something can be funny. There's traditional funny (e.g., "What's the deal with airplane food?"). There's absurd funny (e.g. using coconuts to simulate the sound of a horse for a knight who doesn't have one). And then there's the HolycowIcan'tbelieveyoudidthat funny. The kind of funny that surrounds a situation that's so abominable and horrible that somehow humor emerges from it like teeth and fingernails in a teratoma. I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine if anything in this week's list has any humor to it. I hope, in turn, you'll forgive me if I see it pretty clearly.

Back in 1920, which constituted the early days of psychology (Freud had only stopped prescribing cocaine to his patients a couple decades earlier), a guy named John B. Watson wanted to prove that fear was a learned behavior. What better way to find out than to condition a 11-month-old infant to learn to fear bunnies?

Watson, who was a respected Johns Hopkins researcher, got his hands on an underling's son and began by introducing the child to a rat, a dog, a rabbit, a sealskin fur coat and cotton balls. The boy, who came to be known infamously as Little Albert, showed no natural aversion to any of these things. He came to know terror in short order, however.

This was thanks to Watson's clever conditioning stimulus, a claw hammer he used to sharply bang against a piece of metal right behind the boy's head whenever he was given one of the animals or objects to play with. The kid was startled and soon after when he was presented with so much as the harmless rabbit, he would cry, hide his face or try to crawl off the examination table where the experiments took place.

The punchline: Watson originally intended to conduct a second phase of the experiment where he would deprogram the fear conditioning in Little Albert, but he didn't get around to it before he was fired from his position for having an affair with his secretary. No one knows who Little Albert was; Watson burned his notes in 1958. So there may still be a 90-year-old man still out there who's absolutely petrified of rabbits and Q-Tips.

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