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Psychology: Little Albert

The story of ‘Little Albert’ is quite well known to psychology students. ‘Little Albert’ was 11 months old and the subject of an experiment into fear carried out by a Dr Watson. Albert was conditioned to be afraid of a white rat and anything that resembled a white rat by the experiment.

Loud noise

Dr Watson induced the fear by making a loud noise, striking an iron bar with a hammer,  at the same time as Albert was exposed to the rat. By striking the bar at the same time that Albert touched a white rat, the fear was transferred to the white rat. After seven combined stimulations, rat and sound, Albert not only became greatly disturbed at the sight of a rat, but this fear had spread to include a white rabbit, cotton wool, a fur coat, and the experimenter’s hair. It did not transfer to his wooden blocks and other objects very dissimilar to the rat.

Associations

Albert associated the white rat and similar objects to danger. The original experience that alarmed him was the rat and a loud noise. The experiment is often thought to show that fear is learnt rather than something we are born with. In fact Albert already knew to be afraid, he learnt when to be afraid. The combination of animal and loud noise was a poor choice for the experiment because we instinctively respond to loud noises from animals with fear. If we are walking through woodland, the sight of a squirrel would probably be a pleasant one, the sight of any animal making a loud noise would probably alarm us. We associate loud noises with alarm. Associations especially when they are founded on instinctive behaviour can initiate good emotions as well as bad emotions.

Places

We make associations with places and can look forward to going somewhere that we associate with enjoyment and we can dread going somewhere we associate with fear like the doctor or dentist. We become conditioned to feeling anxious, almost by accident. We can also be conditioned into feeling happy and secure by the environment. Music is often used to try to initiate a relaxed feeling in shoppers.

Removing the conditioning

The conditioning of ‘little Albert’ was done using seven combined stimulations. We are conditioned by repeated events. Further experiments have shown that a child conditioned to fear a white rabbit can be shown there is nothing to fear by people he trusts. It is not enough for him to be told there is nothing to fear. He has to witness other children who are not afraid of the rabbit and adults who he trusts who are not afraid of the rabbit, before he will even consider whether it is safe.

Proof

The child requires proof. The person who is afraid of the hypodermic needle cannot control their anxiety. They need proof that is is not going to hurt them. The obvious way to do this is to encourage them to see other people who are not afraid having injections or having blood taken. The same strategy can be applied to other examples of conditioned fear and anxiety.

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