Watson and Rayner (1920) investigated classical conditioning, a behaviourist theory of learning. The researchers conditioned fear into little Albert and showed that fear can be learnt. This research was ground-breaking as it demonstrated how phobias can be acquired at a young age. Although Albert was psychologically harmed Jones (1924) found fear could be unconditioned and so Watson and Rayner’s (1920) theory has been used to develop systematic desensitisation (Wolpe, 1958). In this essay, I will describe Watson and Rayner (1920) and discuss potential criticisms and applications of their research.
Watson and Rayner (1920) aimed to research if fear can be conditioned, if this fear can be generalised and if time has an effect on responses. They also aimed to find out how the conditioning could be removed. To investigate this Watson and Rayner (1920) used little Albert who was a healthy and unemotional child at the hospital where the study was conducted. Little Albert was presented with a white rat, rabbit and other similar stimuli but none of these provoked a fear reaction. A hammer hit a steel bar when the rat was presented which caused Albert to cry. Over many trials Albert began to show fear towards the rat without any loud noise. Here the unconditioned stimulus (the loud noise) was paired with a neutral stimulus (the rat) to produce the conditioned response (fear). So the researchers had conditioned Albert to fear the rat and they also found that the fear generalised to other objects. But Albert only showed fear to similar objects that were white and fluffy such as a Santa mask and so discriminated. The researchers also found that the same fear responses were still present after a time period but they were weaker.
Watson and Rayner (1920) did not test their fourth research aim to find out if the conditioning could be removed because little Albert left the hospital with his mother. But they had a theory that fear could be removed by combining the conditioned stimulus with a pleasant unconditioned stimulus during reconditioning. To test this theory Jones (1924) recruited little Peter who was afraid of rabbits. The rabbit was presented at a big distance from Peter who was given a cookie then the distance was gradually decreased (successive approximation of conditioned stimulus). Peter learnt not to fear the rabbit and so this supports Watson and Rayner’s (1920) theory as it suggests reconditioning does work. However, Peter also observed non-fearful children interacting with rabbits which is a confounding variable as it could mean the fear response was removed due to imitation and not classical conditioning.
A strength of reconditioning is that it has been used to develop systematic desensitisation (Wolpe, 1958); a successful therapy for phobias. This is where the client is first taught relaxation techniques and then creates a fear hierarchy eg. Cartoon spider, a picture of a spider, touching a spider. The client works through the hierarchy relaxing at each stage; this way the client is reconditioned to associate the feared stimulus with relaxation, thus reducing fear. This therapy has proven to be successful. For example, Sturges and Sturges (1998) reported an 11 year old girl was cured of her fear of elevators using systematic desensitisation. Therefore, Watson and Rayner’s (1920) reconditioning theory has been applied to therapy to better people’s lives.
A criticism of Watson and Rayner’s (1920) study is that it is unethical. This is because little Albert was conditioned to fear objects which caused him psychological harm shown by his intense fear to the white rat and other similar objects. Furthermore, since little Albert left the hospital with his mother, the researchers did not have the opportunity to reverse the negative effects of this study. But whether Albert actually suffered any ill effects is unknown as his identity remains anonymous even though many researchers try to discover his identity (Beck, Levinson and Irons (2009) believe that he was Douglas Merritte). Although Albert may have suffered harm and this study is considered unethical by modern standards until his identity is unknown we cannot be certain if he did suffer any negative consequences.
Watson and Rayner (1920) conducted a revolutionary study into classical conditioning which provided evidence on how fear can be conditioned. There are ethical concerns but the question of Albert’s identity still remains so we cannot tell whether these concerns are valid. Nonetheless, the benefits to our understanding and knowledge as well as applications to therapy seem to outweigh the costs.