Little Albert, lost and found

One of the most famous and most mythologised studies in psychology concerns John Watson’s experiment to condition ‘Little Albert’ to be afraid of a white rat. ‘Little Albert’ and his mother moved away afterwards and no-one knew what happened to him, leading to one of the most enduring mysteries in psychology. Finally, it seems, his identity has been discovered.

An article in the latest edition of American Psychologist recounts a detective story, led by psychologist Hall Beck, to try and solve the question of what happened to ‘Little Albert’ after his participation in the famous study.

The experiment itself consisted of showing the infant some live animals, most notably a white rat, and some other assorted objects, to demonstrate he had no pre-existing fear of them.

On several later occasions, when playing happily with the white rat, Watson and his colleague Rosalie Rayner struck a metal bar to frighten the young child. Subsequently, simply seeing the rat was enough to cause Albert to cry and show visible distress – demonstrating the phenomenon of classical conditioning, where something previously neutral can be associated with the responses triggered by something else.

Although accounts vary, Albert may have shown generalisation of his learnt response, so he became distressed at things like rabbits, dogs and furry coats, despite the fact that experimenters never presented these with a frightening noise.

‘Little Albert’ and his mother moved away from the university, his identity was lost and for years psychologists and historians have wondered what happened to the unwilling star in one of the landmark studies of the 20th century.

The first step was to find out exactly when the experiments took place and then to try and identify Albert’s mother from the information given in Watson’s original studies.

Careful sifting of financial and residency records put the researchers onto a campus wet nurse called Arvilla Merritte, but there the trail went cold.

There were no others traces of Arvilla Merritte but a search for her maiden name, Arvilla Irons, revealed that her married name was likely fictitious to hide the fact that her baby was illegitimate.

However, Irons’ baby was not called Albert, but Douglas, and it wasn’t until the Irons family got in touch to send a photo of the baby that the researchers could try and make a physical comparison.

The photos were blurry and they recruited the help of an FBI forensics expert to compare the images. The comparison suggested that the photos were likely of the same person and with the other matching biographical details it seems very likely that Douglas Merritte was indeed ‘Little Albert’.

The story has a tragic ending, however, as Douglas Merritte died when only six years old after developing hydrocephalus, a build up of fluid in the brain, possibly due to a meningitis infection.

Beck finishes the article on a melancholy note, reflecting on his own part in the story, Little Albert’s short life and his visit to his grave:

As I watched Gary and Helen put flowers on the grave, I recalled a daydream in which I had envisioned showing a puzzled old man Watson’s film of him as a baby. My small fantasy was among the dozens of misconceptions and myths inspired by Douglas.

“The sunbeam‚Äôs smile, the zephyr‚Äôs breath,
All that it knew from birth to death.”

None of the folktales we encountered during our inquiry had a factual basis. There is no evidence that the baby’s mother was “outraged” at her son’s treatment or that Douglas’s phobia proved resistant to extinction. Douglas was never deconditioned, and he was not adopted by a family north of Baltimore.

Nor was he ever an old man. Our search of seven years was longer than the little boy’s life. I laid flowers on the grave of my longtime “companion,” turned, and simultaneously felt a great peace and profound loneliness.

Link to summary of article in American Psychologist.

7 thoughts on “Little Albert, lost and found”

  1. “our seach of seven years was longer than the little boy’s life” that was really sad. I agree with Dave, this blog was very interesting .

  2. Goog story. I read another that said his birthday was in Dec. 1919 and his Death was May 1925 which would have made him only 5 but either way, 5 or 6, it’s still such a sad thought that so many children used to die at those ages and even younger so very often. It still happens and each is a tragedy but to live in a time when it was “normal”… I couldn’t imagine it. 😦

  3. I believe they should have not tested on babies to begin with. Whats all this gonna solve?? Absolutely nothing. The child must have been traumatized.

    I feel sorry for child bless his heart:/

    1. It really is a shame what happened to this child but like it notes in this article he may of died from some form of meningitis. The way they instilled fear into the child is indeed unethical but many other things have been done which are worse.
      It has solved something, progress with classical conditioning. A topic we may not of even known about if it wasn’t for experiments like these.

  4. How did the mom not ask what was going on at the time. I guess it goes to show how the world has changed from then because now you need a legitimate reason to take someones child.

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