One of psychology’s greatest mysteries is the identity of Little Albert.
In 1920, John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner conditioned a fear of rats in a baby they called “Albert B.” (now known as Little Albert). By the time Albert left the study at just over one year of age, the researchers reported that this fear had generalized to a dog and other furry animals and objects. No one knows what eventually happened to Albert, because his identity remained a mystery for over 90 years. In recent years, researchers believe they have narrowed down his identity.
In 2012, a group of American researchers led by Alan Fridlund and Hal Beck announced that they had uncovered new evidence that shows “Little Albert” is likely Douglas Merritte, a neurologically impaired baby who died shortly after the study. The implications that Watson and Rayner used a neurologically impaired child in this research – and hid this fact in their published accounts of the study – could have far-reaching repercussions surrounding the ethics in psychology, and could impact the near-century’s worth of research based on Watson’s original study and change the way Watson’s research itself is discussed in text books.
But after reviewing the Fridlund and Beck’s journal article and watching Watson’s 1920 filmed footage of the Little Albert study, psychology faculty members Russ Powell and Nancy Digdon (pictured above) began their own research — which led them to address inconsistencies they discovered in Fridlund and Beck’s arguments and eventually dispute the evidence that Merritte is Little Albert.
“Early on we began to see these little inconsistencies,” says Russ. These included a disconnect between medical reports that Merritte was physically ill and the film footage of what appears to be a robust and healthy infant.
A second candidate
Russ and Nancy contacted Watson scholar Ben Harris (now a co-author on their paper), and with his knowledge and support, they began to address the earlier paper’s inconsistencies. Along the way, they discovered a better candidate for Little Albert.
“Always in the back of my mind, I thought it would be interesting if we could find out who Little Albert was,” says Russ.
“It often doesn’t do much good to simply discard what’s been found if you don’t have anything to substitute in its place,” adds Nancy, “especially if it seems a lot of people were quite excited about finding Little Albert.”
“They may not be very receptive to criticisms without having a replacement.”
Finding the mother lode
Looking into the backgrounds and family history of three possible mothers of the baby, Russ narrowed his search efforts to Pearl Barger. Sure enough, he discovered that she had three children, one of whom was named Albert.
“I had other leads, but this one was really interesting,” says Russ.
After pouring over census records, he turned to Christopher Smithson, a genealogical researcher in Baltimore, who was able to find a marriage license for Pearl Barger to Charles Martin, and a birth registry for a baby born in March 1919. That baby’s age, like Merritte’s, matched that of the baby recorded in Watson’s research.
Russ flew to Baltimore to compare the medical records of Douglas Merritte and Albert Barger in the archives of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
One key thing he noticed was that the nine-month-old baby in Watson’s footage is chubby with rosy cheeks and matches Watson’s report that Little Albert was a very well-developed child. Barger’s medical records state that Albert weighed 22 pounds at the time, whereas Merritte’s medical records state that Douglas weighed only 15 pounds, which is severely underweight for a child of that age.
“It’s hard to reconcile a 15-pound baby with the chubby baby that was shown in the film,” says Nancy.
In addition to his birth date, Barger met a number of other characteristics.
“We’ve been in touch with Albert’s niece, who is Pearl Barger’s only surviving relative, and she had some interesting things to say about him,” says Russ. “What she said would fit to some extent with him having been Little Albert.”
Barger’s niece noted that her uncle, who died in 2007, disliked animals, especially dogs, which was one of the animals used in the study – though it’s impossible to say if this was actually the result of the research. But she also describes him as a rather easy-going individual who lived a long and satisfying life, which contradicts the commonly touted belief that Little Albert must have been psychologically damaged as a result of the experiment.
Nancy presented their findings at a history of behavioral sciences conference in 2013, where their research was well received. They have submitted papers to several journals and, while they await publication dates for some, their findings have been published by the Chronicle of Higher Education and a story about their research was featured in the Edmonton Journal.
“This notion of neurologically impaired Douglas Merritte as Little Albert has been widely adopted, and that’s going to start making its way into textbooks,” says Russ. “So our research may cause some problems for a lot of people.”
Just as the 2012 paper had repercussions throughout the psychology field, so will Russ and Nancy’s paper — though, Nancy suggests, in a much less sensational way.
“Our story is quite boring,” she says, “in that it is largely consistent with what Watson and Rayner reported. Our narrative includes no new scandal or cover-up, unlike Fridlund and Beck’s version of Albert’s story. It will be interesting to see which version gains the most traction: the sensational story of a neurologically impaired Albert or the relatively boring story that is closely aligned to the historical record of Little Albert.
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