Little Albert Experiment’s Ethical Issues


The Little Albert Experiment refers to a psychology experiment carried out by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner. The experiment, which took place in 1920, was an extension of an earlier experiment that involved the reflexive relationships of stimulus-response conditioning. This earlier experiment took place with the supervision of a Russian physiologist called Ivan Pavlov, and it demonstrated the process of conditioning in animals such as dogs. In this experiment, Watson attempted to extend previous research by Pavlov. Pavlov’s research had indicated that it is possible to condition emotional reactions in humans, just like in dogs (Fridlund, Beck, Goldie, & Irons, 2012).

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The experiment was conducted on a boy named Albert B, who was eleven months old at the time. In the experiment, Rayner and Watson exposed the baby to a number of stimuli and watched his reaction. These stimuli included burning masks, a monkey, a white rat, and a rabbit. At first, the child did not show any fear of the things displayed. At the start of the experiment, Watson and Rayner observed that initially when the child was shown a live white rabbit, he smiled and approached the rat. Using a hammer, Watson stuck a metal bar when the rat was not present. When the child heard this, he flinched and began to cry. After that, the loud sound and the rat were simultaneously presented on seven different occasions. On these occasions, the boy reacted to the loud sound, moving away from the rat and the sound, starting to whimper and then crying. Towards the end of the experiment, the rat alone was shown to the child. With only the rat placed in front of him and no sound, he would instantly withdraw from the rat, whimper, and then start crying. Watson and Rayner had demonstrated using the classical conditioning process that the rat, which was the neutral object, elicits a strong emotional response (Goodwing, 2012).

Although the Little Albert experiment is well known in the psychology discipline, it has sparked a lot of controversies and elicited criticism from various quarters. The experiment has been cited by many of these critics as unethical.

The experiment certainly deserves their criticism as its experimental design, together with the process, was not constricted properly. Watson and Rayner failed to figure out an accurate and objective way of evaluating the boy’s reactions, instead choosing to rely on their own interpretations that were highly subjective. Additionally, the experiment also raised numerous ethical concerns, with many psychologists being of the opinion that the experiment could not be conducted with today’s standards since it would be considered unethical (Nevid, 2012).

The ethical principles that are being applied to psychology today would undoubtedly require an approach different from that used in the Little Albert Experiment. A good example of a different behaviorism form can be seen from the works of B.F. Skinner, who also decided to make behavior the focus of his research. Skinner continued with the search for lawful relationships between the environment and behavior. His thinking began with accepting Watson’s stimulus-response approach although he ultimately took behaviorism in a direction that was fundamentally direct. Skinner went on to present his approach in a book in 1938 titled The Behavior of Organisms. In the book, he described methods and results of systematic research, demonstrating the main points of what later became radical behaviorism (Watson & Rayner, 2012).

The controversies on the life of John B. Watson, including the little Albert experiment, would have been dealt with in today’s zeitgeist in a rather different manner. It would not have been possible to carry out such an experiment given the unethical way in which it was done. Perhaps the only reason the experiment ever took place is that human rights activists, especially those dealing with children’s issues, were not well established at the time. Another controversy involved Watson’s failure to reverse the conditioning in which he had performed on Little Albert. The experiment apparently inflicted the fear of white rats into the child, as evident in the observations from the experiment. Watson did not take any measures to reverse the process. This implies that Little Albert was left with fear of rats after the experiment. In the unlikely event that the experiment is allowed today, the scientists will certainly take some measures to reverse the effects of the experiment after it is done. This could be by ensuring that the child is exactly as he was before the experiment took place (Nevid, 2012).


In conclusion, John Watson eventually stopped practicing psychology, going on to venture into the advertising business. This move paved way for other psychologists and scientists to continue with more research on his work. Had he continued with his practice, he would have probably tried to prove more theories and approaches. In the process, he would probably conduct more unethical experiments that would have made psychology appear in a negative light (Beck & Irons 2009).


Beck, H. P., Levinson, S., & Irons, G. (2009). Finding little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson’s infant laboratory. American Psychologist 64(7), 605-614.

Fridlund, A. J., Beck, H. P., Goldie, W. D., & Irons, G. (2012). History of Psychology. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Goodwing, C.J. (2009). Research in Psychology: Methods and Design. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Nevid, J.S. (2012). Psychology: Concepts and Applications. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.

Watson, John B. & Rayner, Rosalie. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.

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PsychologyWriting. "Little Albert Experiment's Ethical Issues." July 1, 2023.