John B. Watson’s Behaviorism

In behaviorism, it is believed that a person is passive and simply responds to environmental stimuli through conditioning (both classical and operant). In essence, an individual is a clean slate and their behavior is the result of either positive or negative reinforcement. Because behavior can be observed, it is much easier to collect and quantify data. Though behaviorism is no longer as popular as it had been in the mid-twentieth century, its influence can still be found in parenting methods, teaching methods, animal training, and changing practices in people that are harmful or maladaptive.

John B. Watson took a great interest in Ivan Pavlov’s experiment on dogs and conditioning, and wanted to see if he could take behavioral conditioning one step further by classically conditioning emotional reactions in people.

The participant of the experiment was a nearly nine-month-old baby that Watson referred to as “Albert B.,” but who is now commonly referred to as Little Albert. Watson and his research assistant, Rosalie Raynor—whom Watson would have an affair with —exposed the baby to a variety of stimuli and recorded the baby’s reactions. The stimuli included a rabbit, a monkey, a white rat, burning newspapers, and masks. At first, the child showed absolutely no fear to any of the stimuli.

The next time Watson exposed the child to the white rat, he simultaneously used a hammer and hit a metal pipe, which created an extremely loud noise. The baby began to cry from the noise. Watson then repeated the pairing of the loud noise with the white rat. Eventually, the baby began crying just from seeing the white rat, without any noise being paired with it.

  • The neutral stimulus was the white rat
  • The unconditioned stimulus was the loud noise created by the hammer hitting the metal pipe
  • The unconditioned response was fear
  • The conditioned stimulus was the white rat
  • The conditioned response was fear

As with Pavlov, Watson had shown that it was possible to create a conditioned response to a neutral stimulus; although in Watson’s case, the conditioned response was taking place in a human and it was an emotional, not merely physiological, response. Furthermore, Watson also noticed a new fearful reaction in Little Albert to all-white objects, which came to be known as stimulus generalization.

For example, following conditioning, the baby in the Little Albert experiment not only became afraid when it saw the white rat but also a variety of white objects, from a white fur coat to a Santa Claus beard.

Doctoral Definition

Stimulus Generalization: When a subject responds to stimuli that are similar to the original conditioned stimulus but are not identical.

Though it was a landmark experiment in psychology, Watson’s Little Albert experiment has been criticized for several reasons. The baby’s reactions were not evaluated objectively but were simply the subjective interpretations of Watson and Raynor, and the experiment raises many ethical questions. Today, if someone were to try this experiment, it would be considered unethical by the American Psychological Association because it evokes fear in a person, and that is only ethical if the person agrees to participate in the study knowing in advance that they will be purposely scared as part of the experiment. Regardless, behavioral psychologists were able to derive many important insights from Watson and from the results of the Little Albert experiment that have continued to shape the field.