Upfront

New evidence suggests that the baby boy known as Little Albert—the subject of John B. Watson's and Rosalie Rayner's famous 1920 emotion-conditioning investigation at Johns Hopkins University—may not have been the "healthy," "normal" boy Watson touted, but a neurologically impaired child who suffered from congenital hydrocephalus.

What's more, supporting evidence suggests that Watson suppressed that information to augment the study's findings, perhaps reasoning that an unresponsive child would provide a better baseline for later strong reactions and help deflect accusations of child maltreatment.

"It took tremendous chutzpah to do this because Watson set himself up as one of the world's experts on child development partly on the basis of this study," says University of California, Santa Barbara, Associate Professor Alan J. Fridlund, PhD, who details the findings in an article in press at the History of Psychology.

Fridlund wrote the article in collaboration with Hall P. Beck, PhD, lead author of a 2009 American Psychologist article concluding that Little Albert was very likely Douglas Merritte, the son of Arvilla Merritte, an impoverished wet nurse who worked at Johns Hopkins during the time of the study. That earlier report—which detailed seven years of investigation by Hall, colleagues and students—ended with the discovery that Merritte died at age 6 from what period doctors labeled as acquired hydrocephalus.

Fridlund began looking into Albert's early health when an aspect of the American Psychologist article kept gnawing at him—namely, the assumption that Merritte's hydrocephalus was acquired long after the conditioning procedure. (Watson and Rayner tested Albert at around 9 months of age, and gave him several conditioning sessions at around 11 months, but they never tried to decondition him.) As Fridlund thought about pictures he'd seen of Little Albert, and Watson's descriptions of Albert as "stolid, phlegmatic and unemotional," he began to wonder if the boy's disorder was congenital. Hydrocephalus, marked by an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain, can lead to signs and symptoms that include an enlarged head, seizures, vomiting, and a variety of motor, visual and cognitive impairments.

Fridlund says that in his examination of the films Watson made of Albert, the child's condition was already evident. In the film, the infant seemed unusually passive, unresponsive and unaware of social cues. Goldie, who was blind to Albert's identity when Fridlund asked him to view the film, made the same observations and noted such abnormalities as Albert's use of hand-scooping rather than grasping gestures, poor eye-scanning abilities and impassive facial expressions—all consistent with some kind of neurological impairment.

Their clinical hypotheses were validated when Irons procured medical records from Johns Hopkins University. They verify that Merritte indeed had congenital hydrocephalus, and recounted in disturbing detail treatments the child was subjected to during his first year of life, including repeated cranial and lumbar punctures to reduce fluid buildup in the brain. Moreover, medical staff repeatedly injected diagnostic dyes that caused toxic reactions, and by their own admission, introduced bacterial meningitis that led to damaging high fevers. (It is unclear from the records whether the infection was caused accidentally or experimentally.) The records also confirm that there is no overlap between the times the investigators tested Little Albert and the times the infant was acutely ill, offering further evidence that Little Albert was indeed Douglas Merritte and suggesting Watson was aware of the child's changing medical status.

Because the evidence so clearly supports Watson's cognizance of Albert's condition, the conclusion that he intentionally misrepresented it is nearly inescapable, the authors contend. Yet in testing a neurologically impaired child, Watson may simply have embodied the mentality of researchers of the time, they say. Historical evidence suggests it was standard practice to use poor, sick infants and children as experimental subjects; given her low social status as a poor, single woman, Arvilla Merritte may well have felt pressured into offering up her child because she couldn't otherwise obtain the expensive medical treatments available from the doctors who employed her.

The findings shed an important modern light on an old teaching chestnut, Fridlund believes.

"Because Watson and Rayner tried to condition fear in an infant and made no effort to follow him after discharge and insure his well-being, the Little Albert study has always led us to consider basic issues of experimental ethics," he says. "But now it forces us to confront deeper, more disturbing issues like the medical misogyny, the protection of the disabled and the likelihood of scientific fraud. It's a story all psychologists can learn from."

—T. DeAngelis