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A New Twist in the Sad Saga of Little Albert with some Footnotes about G. Reid Lyon

Susan Notes:

Anyone who took psychology in college knows about John Watson the famous behaviorist. He was also an advertising executive, what a 1928 New Yorker profile described as the "showpiece of J. Walter Thompson [advertising agency]." And he popularized his theories in McCall's and Harper's, advocating a mechanistic approach to child rearing:

Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. (Guilford Buckley, Mechanical man: John Broadus Watson and the beginnings of behaviorism. 1989, p. 162)

Watson sounded rather like our current "No Excuses" folks, when, in 1930, he wrote:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select--doctor, lawyer, artist--regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors. (A. Hulbert, (2003). Raising America: Experts, parents, and a century of advice about children. p. 119)

The authors of LITTLE ALBERT: A Neurologically Impaired Child point out, "If psychology could do that, the possibilities would be limitless--the wholesale positive transformation of society through scientific child rearing, including the control of the emotions." It's somewhat reassuring to know that "Today, intentionally misreporting scientific information and producing fear in a neurologically damaged child might result in academic dismissal, professional censure, and civil and criminal charges."

My question is why the people at the U. S. Department of Education can continue to order such stultifying behavioristic experiments as Reading First on children of poverty--without first individually diagnosing the needs of these children-- without any fear of academic dismissal, professional censure, and civil and criminal charges.

Why aren't reputable psychologists up in arms? Reading Professionals? Why are there no actions of censure from professional organizations? Why do the rest of us allow it to happen?

First, we need to stop the abuse of children. Then, we need studies to measure the damage done by Reading First behavioristic regimentation and stoicism. For example, how many books do the children subjected to DIBELS and direct instruction check out of the library? How often do they spontaneously pick up a book? How many books do they read a year--in school and out? Twenty years from now we need to ask how often they read to their children.

But first the federal experiment, implemented by the states to collect their little pots of money, must stop.

As if the Little Albert experiment weren't already bad enough, now the picture of Watson's research methods is even grimmer. In the infamous Little Albert experiment Watson and a colleague attempted to condition an 11-month-old baby they called "Albert B." to fear a white laboratory rat.

They contended that the child's fears later transferred to other furry objects, such as a rabbit, a dog, and a Santa Claus mask.

The continued interest in Little Albert is due, in part, to questions that Watson and Rayner (1920) left unanswered about him. Albert departed from his home at The Johns Hopkins University campus (hereafter referred to as Johns Hopkins) without deconditioning or long-term follow-up. His departure created one of the greatest mysteries in our discipline, generating lingering questions that have intrigued generations of psychologists. Did he retain his fear of furry objects? Did he develop other phobias as an adult? What type of person did he become? In the absence of reliable information, Albert became the source of speculations, myths, and misconceptions (see Harris, 1979).

The first paper (Beck et al., 2009) presented some new facts about Albert, which were supplemented with material from Watson’s scientific productions (books, journal articles, film) and personal correspondence. The most important information reported by Beck et al. (2009) was that (a) Albert's mother was one of no more than four wet nurses employed at the Johns Hopkins Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children (HLH), (b) he lived almost his entire first year at the HLH. . . Watson and Rayner attested to Albert's excellent physical development and emotional stability during his stay at the HLH. . . They claimed, "Albert's life was normal: he was healthy from birth and one of the best developed youngsters ever brought to the hospital. . . ." [One of the paper authors watched films of Albert and concludes, "I was struck by his general unresponsiveness, a passivity so apparent that I could not believe this was the same 'normal, healthy' Albert routinely touted in textbooks."
--Alan J. Fridlund, Hall P. Beck, William D. Goldie, and Gary Irons, "Little Albert: A Neurologically Impaired Child," History of Psychology, January 2012.

I wonder how many psychologists are now rushing to replicate Watson's experiment on a normal baby.

Watson used the "Little Albert" study as one of the bases for his best-selling Psychological Care of the Infant and Child (1928), which preached regimentation and stoicism over spontaneity and nurture, and profoundly influenced the ways of child rearing for generations to come. Then Dr. Spock told parents to trust themselves, beginning his famous book with "You know more than you think you do."

Spock has been out of fashion for quite some time. We are now in the era of deprofessionalizing teachers, insisting, as G. Reid Lyon does, that they don't know anything. G. Reid Lyon (Ph.D. with a dual concentration in Special Education [learning disabilities and disorders] and psychology [developmental neuropsychology]), self-proclaimed co-author of Reading First, is currently traveling the country preaching the Watson message: Follow my formula and every kid will read. Lyon repeats over and over that teachers don't know how to teach reading and that the behaviorist methods employed to teach children with special needs are "good for all children of poverty." Note that "of poverty." This is the method for inner cities and rural America: Nobody is preaching this method for suburbia.

In Watson's utopia, the authority of experts was institutionalized in a technocracy managed by behavioral scientists (Buckley, 1989). Watson's granddaughter, actress Mariette Hartley, writes in her account of family tragedy, "Grandfather's theories infected my mother's life, my life, and the lives of millions." Like our current entrepreneurs operating under Reading First, Watson called his flimflam science. Today, in the name of science, his presence infects our schools.

I witnessed G. Reid Lyon's performance in Vermont on January 17, 2012. More about this later. Now I'll just say it sounded like Reading First Round 2.

I would also say that teachers know more than G. Reid Lyon says they do. A lot more. But they badly need a group that will assert this--instead of looking for a seat at the LEARN, Common Core, Value-Added table. We've been abandoned by our unions and our professional organizations such as NCTE. Parents Across America may be our only hope. They are doing good things. Support them. Get involved with them.

By Tom Bartlett

In the famous Little Albert experiment, a nearly 9-month-old baby is shown a white rat. The rat crawls up to the baby, on him, and around him. The baby seems interested in the rat and unafraid. Later, researchers again produce the rat and place it next to the baby, but this time the rat's presence is accompanied by a loud, startling clang -- a sound the baby clearly doesn't like. This is repeated multiple times until the baby starts to cry at the mere appearance of the rat, loud clang or no. The fear extends to other furry things like a dog and a monkey, animals that previously provoked only mild interest. The researchers have taught Little Albert to be afraid.

The experiment was conducted by John Watson in 1920 and was part of the psychologist's attempt to prove that infants are blank slates and therefore infinitely malleable. It has been recounted in countless papers and textbooks. One of the longstanding mysteries about the experiment, the identity of Little Albert, was apparently solved in 2010 by Hall P. Beck, a psychologist at Appalachian State University. He and his co-authors argued that Little Albert was Douglas Merritte, the son of a wet-nurse who worked at the Johns Hopkins University, where the experiment was carried out. Merritte died in 1925 at age six from convulsions brought on by hydrocephalus (also known as "water on the brain").

Now comes another twistâ€"one that, if accurate, would change how the Little Albert experiment is viewed and would cast a darker shadow over the career of the researcher who carried it out.

A paper published this month in the journal History of Psychology makes the case that Little Albert was not, as Watson insisted, "healthy" and "normal." He was probably neurologically impaired. If the baby indeed had a severe cognitive deficit, then his reactions to the white rat or the dog or the monkey may not have been typical--certainly reaching universal conclusions about human nature based on his reactions wouldn't make sense. The entire experiment, then, would be a case of a researcher terrifying a sick baby for no valid scientific reason (not that using a healthy baby would have been ethically hunkydory).

But what makes it worse, the authors of the paper argue, is that Watson must have known that Little Albert was impaired. This would turn a cruel experiment of questionable value into a case of blatant academic fraud.

One of those authors, Alan Fridlund, read Beck's paper arguing that Douglas Merritte was the baby's true identity. Fridlund, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, found the argument persuasive, and one detail stood out. According to the official story, Merritte had died in 1925 after contracting hydrocephalus (also known as "water on the brain") as the result of a bout of meningitis in 1922. That didn't ring true to Fridlund. If Merritte had meningitis severe enough to cause hydrocephalus, he believed, it's doubtful the child would have survived it for so long. The story was, at least, suspicious.

Also, when watching the original film of Little Albert, provided by Beck, who is a co-author on the paper, Fridlund thought the baby's reactions were odd. He was "alarmingly unresponsive" when first confronted with a monkey or a dog (this is prior to the loud clanging). The reactions, Fridlund thought, were those of a baby with neurological problems and perhaps poor vision. He contacted William D. Goldie, an associate professor of neurology at the University of California at Los Angeles, and had him review the tape, not telling him in advance that it was of the famous Little Albert experiment. Goldie thought the baby might be autistic or suffer from another neurological issue. One things was clear, Goldie said: "There's something already gone wrong."

Next, with the help of Douglas Merritte’s nephew, Gary Irons (also a co-author of the paper), Fridlund obtained Merritte’s medical records from Johns Hopkins. In them the researchers found further confirmation that Merritte was indeed Little Albert. Their histories, appearance, and the dates of the experiments all lined up perfectly.

They also discovered notes indicating that Merritte was having problems when he was just six weeks old. He had a "staring expression" and reflexes that were "markedly hyperactive everywhere." He cried all the time.

A number of procedures were performed on Merritte at the time to determine what was wrong. The records show that the baby's hydrocephalus was congenital and not the result of meningitis (though he did contract meningitis in 1919, prior to Watson's experiment). Merritte was a very ill infant who, perhaps because of the hydrocephalus he had had since birth, couldn't see well and, according to his relatives, never learned to walk or talk.

At one point, doctors note that the baby's meningitis was the result of the procedures performed at the hospital. From the paper:

This is frank admission that the near-lethal infection that so devastated Douglas's early development and, we believe, diminished his responsivity, was iatrogenic [caused by treatment or examination]. We have not been able to determine the exact nature of this iatrogenic causation; presumably, the infection "was caused" accidentally (e.g., via improper needle sterilization), but we cannot exclude the possibility that the causation was experimental (i.e., Douglas may have been used for research by investigators other than Watson).

In other words, medical professionals caused, perhaps inadvertently or perhaps not, his debilitating condition before the infant was used in the unrelated fear experiment.

Why would Watson choose a neurologically damaged baby for his experiment? From the paper:

At first glance, a "normal" baby would be the logical choice. Presumably, a more cognitively developed child would be easier to condition and the results would have greater generality. According to Watson and Rayner (1920), Albert was chosen because he was "stolid and unemotional" (p. 1) and would experience "relatively little harm" (p. 2) from the fear induction procedure. If we accept the investigators’ rationale, a concern for children prompted them to select such an impassive baby.

But there may have been less humanitarian reasons for choosing Merritte. The authors write about the baby's mother, Arvilla, who was a wet nurse at the hospital. Because wet nurses were of low social status, and because she worked for the institution itself, she may have felt unable to turn down a request for her baby to be used in Watson's experiment. "Voluntary consent, as we understand the term today, was not possible to give or to withhold," they write. Presumably, most parents, if given a choice, would not allow their babies to participate in an experiment in which researchers terrify them. But Arvilla found herself in a bind. She was dependent on her employer both for her job and for the medical care of her sick baby.

As for why Watson and the other researchers would condition any infant, healthy or not, to experience fear and afterward not even attempt to decondition the baby to prevent him from carrying those fears forever, we have Watson's own explanation: If it yielded scientifically useful results, then it wasn't cruel. These are Watson's words: "They will be worth all they cost if through them we can find a method which will help us remove fear."

I talked to Fridlund about the paper this week as he was driving to work. "Our minds just kept getting blown as we started discovering more, and more things started falling into place," he told me. Fridlund said he's arrived at the "nearly inescapable conclusion that [Watson] knew of Albert's condition and intentionally misrepresented it."

If Fridlund is right, the story of Little Albert will become even sadder and the legacy of Watson significantly more tattered.

— Tom Bartlett with notes by Susan Ohanian
Chronicle of Higher Education blog


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