The Little Albert Experiment: The Perverse 1920 Study That Made a Baby Afraid of Santa Claus & Bunnies

The field of psychology is very different than it used to be. Nowadays, the American Psychological Association has a code of conduct for experiments that ensures a subject’s confidentiality, consent and general mental well being. In the old days, it wasn't the case.

Back then, you could, for instance, con subjects into thinking that they were electrocuting a man to death, as they did in the infamous 1961 Milgram experiment, which left people traumatized and humbled in the knowledge that deep down they are little more than weak-willed puppets in the face of authority. You could also try to turn a group of unsuspecting orphans into stutterers by methodically undermining their self-esteem as the folks who ran the aptly named Monster Study of 1939 tried to do. But, if you really want to get into the swamp of moral dubiousness, look no further than the Little Albert experiments, which traumatized a baby into hating dogs, Santa Claus and all things fuzzy.


In 1920, Johns Hopkins professor John B. Watson was fascinated with Ivan Pavlov’s research on conditioned stimulus. Pavlov famously rang a bell every time he fed his dogs. At first the food caused the dogs to salivate, but after a spell of pairing the bell with dinner, the dogs would eventually salivate at just the sound of the bell. That’s called a conditioned response. Watson wanted to see if he could create a conditioned response in a baby.

Enter 9-month old Albert B., AKA Little Albert. At the beginning of the experiment, Albert was presented with a white rat, a dog, a white rabbit, and a mask of Santa Claus among other things. The lad was unafraid of everything and was, in fact, really taken with the rat. Then every time the baby touched the animals, scientists struck a metal bar behind him, creating a startlingly loud bang. The sound freaked out the child and soon, like Pavlov’s dogs, Little Albert grew terrified of the rat and the mask of Santa and even a fur coat. The particularly messed up thing about the experiment was that Watson didn’t even both to reverse the psychological trauma he inflicted.


What happened to poor baby Albert is hard to say, in part because no one is really sure of the child’s true identity. He might have been Douglas Merritte, as psychologists Hall P. Beck and Sharman Levinson argued in 2009. If that’s the case, then the child died at the age of 6 in 1925 of hydrocephalus. Or he might have been William Albert Barger, as Russ Powell and Nancy Digdon argued in 2012. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 87. He reportedly had a lifelong aversion to dogs, though it cannot be determined if it was a lasting effect of the experiment.

Later in life, Watson left academics for advertising.

You can watch a video of the experiment above.

via Mental Floss

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Bill Nye the Science Guy Takes the Air Out of Deflategate

Did the weather have anything to do with those balls deflating in New England during the AFC championship game? It's unlikely, very unlikely. Bill Nye explains why with science, but not without putting the hyped controversy into perspective first. Take it away Bill.

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Richard Dawkins Reads “Love Letters” from “Fans” (NSFW)

Richard Dawkins -- some know him as the Oxford evolutionary biologist who coined the term "meme" in his influential 1976 book, The Selfish Gene; others consider him a leading figure in the New Atheism movement, a position he has assumed unapologetically. In recent years, Dawkins has made his case against religion though different forms of media: books, documentaries, college lectures, and public debates. He can be aggressive and snide, to be sure. But he dishes out far less than he receives in return. Just witness him reading the "love letters" (as he euphemistically calls them) that he has received from the general public. They are not safe for work. You can see him reading a previous batch of letters here.

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Hear Gandhi’s Famous Speech on the Existence of God (1931)

A perfect symbol of the mechanisms of British rule over India, the Salt Acts prohibited Indians from access and trade of their own resources, forcing them to buy salt from British monopolies, who taxed the mineral heavily. In 1930, in one of the defining acts of his Satyagraha movement, Mohandas Gandhi decided to defy the Salt Act with a very grand gesture—a march, with thousands of his supporters, over a distance of over 200 miles, to the Arabian Sea. Once there, following Gandhi’s lead, the crowd proceeded to collect sea salt, prompting British colonial police to arrest over 60,000 people, including Gandhi himself.

The 1930 action, the first organized act of civil disobedience after the Indian National Congress’ declaration of independence, got the attention of the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, who had been directing harsh repressive measures against the growing independence movement, and in January of 1931, after his release, Gandhi and Irwin signed a pact. Gandhi agreed to end the movement; Irwin agreed to allow the Indians to make their own salt, and the Indians would have an equal role in negotiating India’s future. British officials were outraged and disgusted. Winston Churchill, for example, staunchly opposed to independence, called the meeting of the two leaders a “nauseating and humiliating spectacle,” saying “Gandhi-ism and everything it stands for will have to be grappled with and crushed.” (Churchill favored letting Gandhi die if he went on hunger strike.)

The terms of the pact, of course, did not hold, and the movement would continue until eventual independence in 1947. But Gandhi had not only succeeded in incurring the wrath of the British colonialists; he had also won many supporters in England. One of them, Muriel Lester, invited the Indian leader to stay with her in London at a community center she had founded called Kingsley Hall. “He enjoyed his stay here,” says the current Kingsley Hall manager David Baker, “and it was wise because if he had stayed in the West End the press would have lampooned him. He wouldn’t have had a life, but here he was left alone and walked around in the streets. He wanted to stay with the people that he lived with in India, i.e. the poor.” However, Gandhi wasn’t totally ignored by the press. While at Kingsley, he delivered a short speech, which you can hear above, and the BBC was there to record it.

In the speech, Gandhi says absolutely nothing about Indian independence, British oppression, or the aims and tactics of the movement. He says nothing at all about politics or any worldly affairs whatsoever. Instead, he lectures on the existence of God, “an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything,” and which “defies all proof.” Gandhi testifies to “an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists or lives,” though he also confesses “that I have no argument to convince through reason.” Instead relies on analogies, on things he “dimly perceives,” on the “marvelous researches of [Indian engineer and scientist] Sir J.C. Bose,” and on “the experiences of an unbroken line of prophets and sages in all countries and climes.” It’s not a speech likely to persuade anyone who isn’t already some sort of a believer, I think, but it’s of much interest to anyone interested in the history of Indian independence and in Gandhi’s life and message.

You can read the full text of the speech here, and see footage of Kingsley Hall and a filmed interview with Muriel Lester, discussing Gandhi’s stay, here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Confusion Through Sand: A Short, Hand-Drawn Animation on the Terror & Confusion of War

Back in October 2012, Ornana Films raised $30,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to produce Confusion Through Sand, an animation that "explores the spectrum of haze experienced by today's soldiers in the desert." It's an interpretation, Ornana tells us, "of what happens when top training encounters circumstances beyond the realm of human control, in both interior and exterior conflicts." The action takes place "on the ground, under the helmet of a 19 year-old infantryman." Once completed, the film premiered at the 2013 SXSW film festival and took home the Jury Award. Now, a year later, it's free online. And even better, it comes accompanied by a behind-the-scenes film that takes you inside the filmmakers' artistic process, showing how they hand-animated the film with markers on recycled paper. Enjoy both.

Dan Colman is the founder/editor of Open Culture. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox.

The Cahiers du Cinéma Names the 10 Best Films of the Year, from 1951 to 2014



It’s hard to overstate the impact of Cahiers du cinéma on film history.

In the early ‘50s, the great critic André Bazin led a small coterie of film fanatics – guys with names like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette -- who hung out at the Cinémathèque française. Theaters were flooded with Hollywood movies, really for the first time since the beginning of World War II, and this group took the opportunity to watch anything they could get their hands on, from high brow art films to cut rate Westerns. They would watch anything.

In 1951, Bazin founded Cahiers and this band of cinematic outsiders became famously brutal and uncompromising iconoclasts. They praised lowly genre films – film noir especially – as masterpieces while slamming the middlebrow flicks the French film industry was cranking out at the time. Truffaut was famous for being particularly harsh, earning the moniker “The Gravedigger of French Cinema.” His reviews were so acerbic that he was the only French film critic not invited to cover the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. (The fact that he then turned around and won the fest’s top prize the next year for his masterpiece 400 Blows might be one of the greatest feats of badassery in cinema history.)

Perhaps the Cahiers' greatest contribution was an article, written by Truffaut in 1954, called “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” which was a manifesto for what would later be called auteur theory – an idea that certain directors have such a command of the medium that they impress their individual vision on a film, in the same way an author does to a book. This idea has been so completely absorbed into popular consciousness that it’s hard to see just how revolutionary it was at the time. Before Cahiers, people generally thought about movies in terms of the stars, not the director. Most would refer to Rear Window, say, as a Jimmy Stewart movie, not an Alfred Hitchcock film. The concept resulted in a basic reordering in the way filmmakers thought about their art.

Truffaut and company obsessed with filmmakers they considered auteurs. Their top 10 list for 1955, the year after “A Certain Tendency” was published, shows who in particular they considered auteurs – art house icons (Carl Dreyer and Roberto Rossellini), Hollywood renegades (Robert Aldrich and Nicholas Ray) and, of course, Hitchcock.

1. Voyage To Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
2. Ordet (Carl Dreyer)
3. The Big Knife (Robert Aldrich)
4. Lola Montes (Max Ophuls)
5. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)
6. Les Mauvais Recontres (Alexandre Astruc)
7. La Strada (Federico Fellini)
8. The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
9. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray)
10. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich)

1960 was the year that seemingly the entire editorial staff at Cahiers du cinéma took camera in hand and became filmmakers, launching the French New Wave. Truffaut’s 400 Blows in 1959 was followed up by Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes and Godard’s groundbreaking assault on cinematic form, Breathless. Yet for their top 10 list, Cahiers put Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff at the top. Hitchcock also makes the list, number 9, with a little film called Psycho.

1. Sansho The Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi)
2. L'avventura (Michaelangelo Antonioni)
3. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard)
4. Shoot The Piano Player (François Truffaut)
5. Poem Of The Sea (Alexander Dovzhenko/Julia Solntesva)
6. Les Bonnes Femmes (Claude Chabrol)
7. Nazarin (Luis Buñuel)
8. Moonfleet (Fritz Lang)
9. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
10. Le Trou (Jacques Becker)

Starting from 1968 until the late-70s, the journal became a Maoist collective and renounced bourgeois concepts like “best of” lists, narrative cinema and, y’know, fun. But in the early ‘80s, Cahiers shifted its editorial focus back to the world of commercial film. They lauded movies by Nouvelle Vague veterans like Godard and Rohmer, film festival darlings like Hou Hsiao Hsien and, to a perverse degree, Clint Eastwood. You can see all of Cahiers du cinéma's top 10 lists here, including the most recent list for 2014 here.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Bill Hicks’ 12 Principles of Comedy

When we think of trash-talking, transgressive comedians, a few big names spring immediately to mind: George Carlin and Richard Pryor; Joan Rivers and Lenny Bruce. Currently, we have Amy Schumer, and Louis CK and Chris Rock, who—though both prominent family men now—still piss people off from time to time. We’ve just scratched the surface, of course, but we might even think of Denis Leary, who dominated the 90s with his rapid-fire delivery and unrepentant chain smoking. And if you know Leary, you may know the man whose act he’s been accused of stealing—chain-smoking firebrand comic Bill Hicks.

I won’t get into the merits of those charges (comedy plagiarism is a long and storied subject). What I find interesting is that in one of the key similarities between Leary and Hicks lies one of their greatest differences: a distinctive regionalism—Leary the wiseass New Englander; Hicks the rebellious Southerner. Hicks grew up in Texas, and was very much a Texan, though not your red state, Bush-voter but the kind of Texan who once upon a time elected Democratic governor Ann Richards. (He described his family as “Yuppie Baptists,” who “worried about things like, ‘If you scratch your neighbor’s Subaru, should you leave a note?’”)

In rebelling against both an uptight urban liberalism and the angry rural chauvinism of his conservative Southern milieu, Hicks, who died of cancer in 1993, became something of a folk hero as well as a comedy legend. For a taste of his comic invective, see him rip into American anti-intellectualism in the clip above. And for a taste of his methodology, see the list below, once posted on the wall of Atlanta’s Laughing Skull comedy club. This comes to us via comedian Chris Hardwick at Nerdist, who, after offering his own advice, turns to Hicks to answer to the question, “How does one go about being a comic.”


1. If you can be yourself on stage nobody else can be you and you have the law of supply and demand covered.

2. The act is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say.

3. Only do what you think is funny, never just what you think they will like, even though it’s not that funny to you.

4. Never ask them is this funny – you tell them this is funny.

5. You are not married to any of this shit – if something happens, taking you off on a tangent, NEVER go back and finish a bit, just move on.

6. NEVER ask the audience “How You Doing?” People who do that can’t think of an opening line. They came to see you to tell them how they’re doing, asking that stupid question up front just digs a hole. This is The Most Common Mistake made by performers. I want to leave as soon as they say that.

7. Write what entertains you. If you can’t be funny be interesting. You haven’t lost the crowd. Have something to say and then do it in a funny way.

8. I close my eyes and walk out there and that’s where I start, Honest.

9. Listen to what you are saying, ask yourself, “Why am I saying it and is it Necessary?” (This will filter all your material and cut the unnecessary words, economy of words)

10. Play to the top of the intelligence of the room. There aren’t any bad crowds, just wrong choices.

11. Remember this is the hardest thing there is to do. If you can do this you can do anything.

12. I love my cracker roots. Get to know your family, be friends with them.

I’ve never for a second considered doing stand-up, but I’ve stood in front of many a crowded music venue and classroom and have had to conquer stage fright and self-doubt. Seems to me much of Hicks’ advice is plenty applicable to any kind of performance situation, whether its teaching, playing music, giving a job or conference talk, a magic act, or doing stand-up, which I don’t doubt is “the hardest thing there is to do.” I especially like number 12. Hicks’ misanthropic salvos against American ignorance hit the target so often because he genuinely seemed to care about the culture he took aim at.

via @WFMU

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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