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Another twist in the Little Albert tale
The story of Little Albert - the baby whose conditioning by behaviourist John Watson is documented in every psychology textbook - has taken another sad twist, according to a new journal article, writes Christian Jarrett.
Hall Beck at the Appalachian State University and his colleagues claimed in 2009 that they'd uncovered Albert's true identity and that he'd died in 1925 at just six years of age (the story was later documented in The Psychologist; see 'Finding Little Albert', May 2011). Now, based on fresh analysis of video footage of Albert, together with newly obtained medical records, it's been proposed by Beck and others that Albert was neurologically impaired at the time he was tested by Watson and Watson's assistant and mistress Rosalie Rayner in 1920.
The new claims build on the 2009 evidence, which pointed to Little Albert being Douglas Merritte, the son of Arvilla Merritte, a wet nurse at Johns Hopkins University. Douglas's nephew Gary Irons, a co-author on the new paper, has obtained medical records showing that Douglas fell seriously ill at just six weeks of age, and that he underwent a total of nine ventricular and lumbar punctures in the course of being diagnosed and treated for hydroencephalus (brain swelling associated with an excess of cerebral spinal fluid). Douglas also caught a cerebral infection (ventriculitis) from one of these investigations, and he contracted meningitis and measles.
The medical revelations are complemented in the new paper by a retrospective clinical assessment of Albert's behaviour as shown in the video of his testing by Watson and Rayner. The four minutes of footage are from Watson's film The Experimental Investigation of Babies (available on YouTube and similar sites).
Psychologist (and lead author) Alan Fridlund and paediatric neurologist William Goldie viewed the footage and both observed striking evidence of abnormalities. Albert appears alarmingly unresponsive, they said, showing impaired tracking, a lack of smiling, immature verbal skills and gaze behaviour, and signs of visual impairment. These behavioural abnormalities make sense if Albert is really Douglas, given that Douglas almost certainly would have suffered brain damage from his health problems. Indeed, anecdotal evidence from the Irons family suggests Douglas was never able to walk. Moreover, a comparison of Watson's availability, Douglas's periods of relative good health and availability, and Albert's age at testing, all match up, providing further evidence that it's the same person.
The new revelations contradict Watson and Rayner's claims that Albert was in perfect health, although the signs of unresponsiveness to some extent concur with the original description of Albert as 'stolid and unemotional'. Fridlund and his co-authors argue that it's 'almost inconceivable' that Watson wouldn't have known about Albert's medical history and neurological impairment. They say this raises serious ethical questions about Watson's conduct and disclosure practices. 'As a violation of the norm of faithful and complete reportage in science,' not mentioning Albert's medical state 'would compromise "certification" of the knowledge...and render replication impossible. It would be impermissible in the science of his, or any, time.'
The new claims, if true, also further undermine the already questionable scientific merit of the research conducted by Watson and Rayner (see 'Foundations of sand', The Psychologist, September 2008). However, with regard to the ethics of testing an impaired child, Fridlund and co added that this practice was in keeping with the conventions of the time, in which learning disabled children were seen as a convenient subject pool. Watson, like his contemporaries, argued that the ends justified the means.
An obvious question is - how could Albert's alleged impairments have gone unnoticed for so long? 'Watson and Rayner's (1920) most effective conditioning may not have been of Albert but of their readership,' said Fridlund and his co-authors. 'Watching Little Albert with the stipulation that he was "healthy" and "normal" made it easy to overlook the infant's deficits.'
Not everyone is convinced by the new claims. Benjamin Harris is a historian of psychology at the University of New Hampshire who wrote a landmark paper in 1979 'Whatever happened to Little Albert?' about the way Albert's story has been told in psychology, rather than the literal location of Albert. Harris doubts that Douglas Merritte is Little Albert, although he says the boy's identity is of little interest to historians, a case he made in a paper published last year.
Acting as a journal reviewer, Harris advised against the publication of the new study by Fridlund et al. He's now highly critical of this research group, which he says has become closed and secretive. For example, he says they won't release the medical records. 'By insisting on Douglas Merritte, the authors travel down a path that now requires them to accuse Watson of fraud, misconduct, terrible record keeping - to maintain their idée fixe about Douglas Merritte. It's their responsibility to open the records and let unbiased scholars judge,' he told us.
Other criticisms and concerns Harris has include: the lack of independence and appropriate historical expertise of the people who assessed the film footage of Little Albert ('...the current article features only the analysis of a fan of Beck and a friend of that fan,' he said); an ignorance of the details of Watson's study (e.g. the paediatrician Goldie observes the absence of an approach avoidance reaction in Albert, even though this behaviour is noted by Watson); poor historical scholarship (there are no quotes from the medical records); and a dependence on post-hoc logic ('Because Douglas Merritte had symptom "a" and "b" and "c", the authors worked hard and found those symptoms in Albert as filmed by Watson, although no one had seen them in the past 90 years,' Harris said).
Ultimately, Harris questions the fundamental claim in Fridlund et al.'s new paper that Albert's fate is one of the 'greatest mysteries in our discipline'. 'This is nonsense,' Harris said. '...how does Albert's fate compare with the mystery of what causes schizophrenia or the nature of memory or the score of other great scientific questions that psychologists toil over? Not well in my opinion.'
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