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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

How To Think Like a Psy­chol­o­gist: A Free Online Course from Stan­ford

Watch Footage from the Psy­chol­o­gy Exper­i­ment That Shocked the World: Milgram’s Obe­di­ence Study (1961)

Her­mann Rorschach’s Orig­i­nal Rorschach Test: What Do You See? (1921)

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.

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Comments (4)
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  • Kris says:

    Mmh, the Mil­gram exper­i­ment did­n’t quite have the effects you described. The par­tic­i­pants have always been kept anony­mous, so we know lit­tle of the endur­ing influ­ence on them. Of course, par­tic­i­pat­ing in the exper­i­ment was unpleas­ant and stress­ful, as the debrief­ing after the exper­i­ment clear­ly showed. But cer­tain­ly we do not know whether peo­ple real­ly felt and thought about them­selves what you described. What­ev­er it was, it is rather like­ly that a fair amount of those who par­tic­i­pat­ed actu­al­ly came out stronger and more mind­ful of the con­se­quences of their actions than if they would nev­er have par­tic­i­pat­ed.

    As far as I know, only 1 per­son ever tried to con­tact peo­ple who had par­tic­i­pat­ed in Mil­gram’s exper­i­ments: Lau­ren Slater, who describes it in a chap­ter of the book “Open­ing Skin­ner’s Box”. Worth read­ing.

  • Craig Robbins says:

    Wat­son tried to reverse the con­di­tion­ing of Lit­tle Albert, but before he had a chance to, the moth­er took the kid and stormed off, depriv­ing him of restor­ing him to his orig­i­nal state. Old­er edi­tions of psy­chol­o­gy books failed to include this update to the study.

  • Angie says:

    I think it is so cru­el the way they have done exper­i­ments and or used ani­mals for their sick lit­tle games. It should NEVER be allowed or done peri­od.
    Then to brain wash the kid to be afraid of those things is also sick and dis­gust­ing I don’t care if it’s in the name of sci­ence, NO! It’s nev­er okay.

  • victoria saunders says:

    As awful as this lit­tle Albert project was, it def­i­nite­ly helped with research. It helped nar­row down if cer­tain sounds or faces can be dis­tin­guished as fears. I think they were try­ing to see if trau­ma is caused by envi­ron­men­tal out­comes. I obvi­ous­ly wouldn’t want any babies to devel­op any fears, but I do think this is the best way to approach it. The baby was mon­i­tored and he was so young so I doubt his brain remem­bered it in his lat­er years, he was con­di­tioned for research. In today’s world I think a bet­ter approach would be to ask some­one and study peo­ple who have had trau­ma from fears.

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