Monday, January 14, 2013

Asylum Walk (16)

In the “Little Albert” experiment of 1920, John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) and his graduate student Rosalie Rayner (1900-1935), behaviorist researchers at Johns Hopkins University, conditioned an eleven-month-old infant to respond with shrieking terror to a white rat, which Albert had previously reached for with gurgling interest, by presenting the animal along with a loud clanging noise which the experimenters produced by banging a steel bar with a hammer just above and behind the subject’s head. The fear response conditioned by only seven paired presentations was generalized to other fluffy white objects including a rabbit, a dog, a fur coat, and a Santa Claus mask with cotton beard worn by Dr. Watson. At the time of the experiment, Watson had been president of the American Psychological Association for five years.

Albert B., the suject of the experiment, was found in a hospital for orphans. He was removed from the hospital 31 days after the start of the experiment, before any attempts to extinguish the conditioned response through desensitizing had been tried. Nothing is known of the subject’s later life.

The experimenters were soon embroiled in controversy, not from the Little Albert affair, which excited little comment at the time, but from the affair Watson, who was married, was discovered to be having with his much younger student Rayner. Watson was dismissed from the faculty of Johns Hopkins. He married Rayner and they moved to New York City, where Watson began a long and highly successful career in advertising. Rayner, born with the century, died in 1935, aged 35. Watson lived more than twice as long, dying in 1958 at age 80. They had two sons.

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