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Psychology’s Lost Boy: Will the Real Little Albert Please Stand Up?
Article in Teaching of Psychology · January 2014
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Psychology’s Lost Boy: Will the Real Little Albert Please Stand Up?
Richard A. Griggs1
Abstract This article is concerned with the recent debate about the identity of psychology’s lost boy—Little Albert, the infant subject in Watson and Rayner’s classic experiment on fear conditioning. For decades, psychologists and psychology students have been intrigued by the mystery of Albert’s fate. Now two evidentiary-based solutions to this mystery have been proposed. Given the present absence of cov- erage in introductory textbooks, the purpose of this article is to provide a cornerstone resource for teachers to use as an advance organizer to the literature on this debate. Synopses of the search and resulting evidence for each candidate are provided. A summative comparison of the evidence indicates that Albert Barger is likely Little Albert and that Douglas Merritte is not.
Keywords Little Albert, introductory psychology, history of psychology
According to Jarrett (2008), psychology’s foundation as con- veyed in its introductory textbooks is arguably not built of the- ory but with the rock of classic experiments, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s obedience experi- ments (see also Smyth, 2001a, 2001b). This article is concerned with one of these classic experiments, Watson and Rayner’s (1920) Little Albert experiment. More specifically, it is con- cerned with the recent controversy about the true identity of the infant subject of that study—Little Albert, ‘‘psychology’s lost boy’’ (Beck, Levinson, & Irons, 2009). For decades, psycholo- gists and psychology students have been intrigued by the mys- tery of Albert’s identity, his fate, and whether there were lasting effects of his fear-conditioning experiences.
Until recently, there were no evidentiary-based answers to questions about Albert’s fate but rather only facetious ones, such as ‘‘Albert is probably a successful furrier’’ (Murray, 1973, p. 5). This search for answers was made even more dif- ficult because Watson, late in his life, burned all of his research notes and papers, which may have included information about Little Albert (Buckley, 1989). Now, however, there are two competing evidentiary-based answers as to Albert’s iden- tity—Douglas Merritte (Beck & Irons, 2011; Beck et al., 2009; Beck, Levinson, & Irons, 2010; Fridlund, Beck, Goldie, & Irons, 2012a, 2012b) and Albert Barger (Digdon, Powell, & Harris, 2014; Digdon, Powell, & Smithson, 2014; Powell, Dig- don, Harris, & Smithson, 2014). Because the supporting publi- cations for each proposed Albert are so new, a discussion of this identity debate is not available in current introductory text- books. In fact, given the recency of the relevant publications, Griggs (2014) found that less than 40% of the current introduc- tory textbooks in his text sample even mentioned the first pro- posed candidate, and only one text mentioned the possibility
that Albert was neurologically impaired at the time of the experiment. In addition, given the 3-year revision cycle for introductory textbooks (Griggs, 2006), it will be a few years before the current set of introductory textbooks are able to update their coverage of the Little Albert identity debate.
It is the purpose of this article to provide an up-to-date dis- cussion of the debate to be used as a cornerstone resource by psychology teachers (and textbook authors) for their classroom presentations on (or textbook coverage of) the Little Albert identity saga.1 My synopses of the searches that identified the two candidates only provide the highlights of each search. For the full details, the cited references should be consulted. Hence, this article should be used as an advance organizer for reading the articles relevant to this debate. The two Albert candidates will be discussed separately, but some comparison of the evi- dence for the two candidates will be provided in the discussion of the second candidate, Albert Barger. I will discuss Douglas Merritte first because the articles advancing his candidacy were published first.
Before discussing either candidate, I need to preface these discussions with some general background material important to solving this almost 100-year-old cold case. It concerns the foundation from which the search for Albert began. Watson and Rayner’s (1920) published account of the Little Albert experi- ment, a movie that Watson made of his research with infants
1 Department of Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA
Corresponding Author: Richard A. Griggs, 4515 Breakwater Row West, Jacksonville, FL 32225, USA. Email: email@example.com
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which included some footage of the Little Albert experiment (Watson, 1923), and the personal information that Watson pro- vided about Albert in other accounts of the experiment (e.g., Watson & Watson, 1921) comprised the foundation for the search. However, it is important to note that there were inconsis- tencies in Watson’s various accounts of the experiment, further complicating the search for Albert (Harris, 1979; Samelson, 1980). It is also important to note that Albert was referred to as ‘‘Albert B.’’ in the experiment. Whether this was a pseudo- nym or Albert’s actual name was not known. In addition, the fact that Albert’s mother was a wet nurse at the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, a pediatric facility at Johns Hopkins, where the experiment was conducted, is critical to the search. Albert and his mother lived at the Harriet Lane Home at the time of the experiment. The Phipps Clinic where Watson and Rayner con- ducted their research was located next to the Harriet Lane Home (Fridlund et al., 2012a). This then is the starting point for Hall Beck and his fellow researchers in their search for the identity of Albert that culminated with their proposal that Douglas Mer- ritte was Little Albert.
Goaded by student questions about the fate of Little Albert, Hall Beck became determined to try to find answers (Beck et al., 2009). A search of the Johns Hopkins archives led to the discovery of a series of memos exchanged between Watson and the school’s president. These memos allowed Beck to determine that the first part of the experiment was likely done in late November or early December in 1919. Using the age of Albert at the time of this part of the experiment (given in Watson & Rayner, 1920), Beck deter- mined that Albert was born between March 2 and March 16 in 1919. The next step was to try to identify Albert’s mother.
A check of the Johns Hopkins census of 1920 by Sharman Levinson, one of Beck’s coinvestigators, revealed that three women were listed as ‘‘foster mothers’’—Pearl Barger, Ethel Carter, and Arvilla Merritte—and it seemed plausible that the title of foster mother would encompass being a wet nurse. Beck and his research team then spent hundreds of hours checking various types of records, such as birth, death, and marriage records, to determine whether any of these three women had given birth to a boy in March 1919 (Beck et al., 2009). Ethel Carter was eliminated because she was an African American and Albert appears to have been Caucasian. Pearl Barger (who was of particular interest because the B. in Albert B. could very plausibly have stood for Barger) was eliminated because no evidence that she had a child was found. However, it was dis- covered that Arvilla Merritte had given birth to a boy on March 9, 1919, and that both mother and son had lived together on the Johns Hopkins campus. Next, a genealogical search revealed that two of Arvilla’s grandchildren were currently living in Maryland. Gary Irons, one of the grandchildren, confirmed that his grandmother had worked at the Harriet Lane Home and had given birth to a son named Douglas Merritte. Thus, Arvilla would probably still have been lactating and able to serve as a wet nurse at the time of the Little Albert experiment.
A problematic aspect of these findings concerned the name that Watson and Rayner assigned to their infant subject, Albert B. The American Psychological Association did not have an ethics code at the time of the Little Albert experiment so there was no need for confidentiality and the use of pseudonyms for experimental subjects. Watson and Rayner named their infant subject Albert B. and not Douglas M. However, a conversation with Charles Brewer, an expert on John Watson, provided Beck and his colleagues with at least a tenable explanation of why the infant in the study might have been named Albert B. According to Brewer, it could have been an instance of Wat- son’s playful use of names. Watson’s mother and maternal grandmother were very religious, and Watson was named John Broadus in honor of a prominent Baptist minister, John Albert Broadus (Beck et al., 2009). Hence, Watson possibly may have playfully derived Albert B. from John Albert Broadus.
The next phase of the search began with a fortuitous discovery of an old trunk with contents from Arvilla Merritte’s life (Beck et al., 2009). Among the contents was a portrait of Douglas when an infant. A comparison of a photograph of this portrait and some enlarged stills that Beck made of Little Albert from Watson’s movie of the experiment followed. This comparison of images did not reveal anything substantive, making it clear that a more thor- ough, expert biometric analysis was warranted. A subsequent bio- metric analysis, however, only led to the conclusion that the photograph and stills could be of the same person. Although the visual and biometric comparisons ruled out a definitive identifica- tion of Albert, Beck et al. (2009) argued that these photographic data in conjunction with their other findings of 10 attributes shared by Little Albert and Douglas Merritte, such as living with his mother at the Harriet Lane Home at the time of the experiment and that Douglas was the same age as Albert when the initial base- line data were collected, strongly supported their hypothesis that Douglas was Albert.
If Douglas Merritte were Little Albert, then what would that tell us about Albert’s fate? Sadly, Douglas Merritte died from hydrocephalus in 1925 at the age of 6. How he acquired it could not be determined by Beck et al. (2009), but they speculated that he had contracted meningitis. Fridlund, Beck, Goldie, and Irons (2012a) later reported that Douglas’s nephew was not sure if Douglas was ever able to walk during his short, illness-laden life and that it is unclear as to whether he ever spoke.
Fridlund et al. (2012a) also argued that a closer examination of the clips from Watson’s (1923) film in which Little Albert appeared and the subsequent review of some newly obtained medical records of Douglas Merritte revealed that Albert was neurologically impaired at the time of the experiment.2
Fridlund et al.’s detailed analyses of Albert’s behavior in the film clips suggested to them that Albert had substantial beha- vioral and neurological deficits. A subsequent examination of Douglas Merritte’s medical records was consistent with this hypothesis in that they showed that Douglas suffered from con- genital hydrocephalus. The records also indicated that Albert’s experimental sessions occurred during periods when Douglas’s medical condition was relatively stable. Fridlund et al. further argued that there were ample sources of information available
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to Watson that would have almost certainly made him aware of Douglas’s medical condition. Thus, if Douglas Merritte were Albert, then these new findings by Fridlund et al. not only con- tradict Watson and Rayner’s assertion that Little Albert was ‘‘normal’’ and ‘‘healthy’’ but also lead to the conclusion that Watson and Rayner would have almost certainly had to know about Little Albert’s medical condition, raising even more seri- ous ethical questions about the already ethically questionable Little Albert experiment.
Soon after the publication of Beck et al. (2009), some other researchers outlined difficulties with the Douglas Merritte hypothesis and argued that the Little Albert identity case was far from closed and thus warranted further investigation (Powell, 2010, 2011; Reese, 2010; but see Beck et al.’s rejoin- der, 2010). For example, Powell (2011) pointed out a difficulty with Beck et al.’s estimated timeline for when the initial base- line session likely took place. The congruence of the reported age of Albert and Douglas Merritte’s age at the time of the baseline session was a critical component of Beck et al.’s case. Powell found evidence that the baseline session could have been delayed well beyond the time proposed by Beck et al., making Douglas older than Albert at that time. Another point of contention involved a comment by Watson (1925) that Albert was later adopted, but Douglas Merritte had remained with his mother and had not been adopted.
Given such difficulties with the Douglas Merritte candidacy and concerns about the weak evidence for Fridlund et al.’s (2012a) claim that Little Albert had neurological impairments and the profound ethical implications of this claim, Russell Powell, Nancy Digdon, and Ben Harris decided to conduct their own search for an alternative candidate for Little Albert. To aid in the search, they enlisted the help of a professional genealo- gist, Christopher Smithson. They began their search by further investigating Pearl Barger, the foster mother for whom Beck et al. (2009) found no evidence of a baby while she resided at the hospital. Their first break came when they found a genealogical document on the Internet on the history of the Martinek family in Baltimore (Powell, Digdon, Harris, & Smithson, 2014). It revealed that Charles Martinek married Pearl Barger in 1921, that they had three children, one of whom was named Albert, and that Charles preferred to use the name Martin, which led to the discovery that Pearl Barger and Charles Martin had a baby in 1919, 2 years before their mar- riage. A search of U.S. census records revealed that Charles Martin was living in Baltimore in 1940 with three children, the oldest being William A., who was the same age as the unnamed son born to the Martins in 1919. Then a search of more birth and death certificates and the medical archives at Johns Hopkins, which included the medical records of William A. Barger and Douglas Merritte, led to more discoveries. Signifi- cantly, William A.’s name was recorded in his medical file as Albert Barger, thereby matching Little Albert’s name in the experiment—Albert B. This agrees with his niece’s report that
although his given name was William Albert, he was typically called Albert throughout his life (Digdon et al., 2014).
Powell et al. (2014) also found that Albert Barger, like Dou- glas Merritte, was the correct age (8 months 26 days) to have been Little Albert at the time of the initial baseline session. In addition, Albert Barger was discharged from the hospital at the age of 12 months 21 days, Little Albert’s age when the final experimental session took place and when his mother removed him from the hospital. Douglas Merritte’s medical file, however, indicated that he was discharged at 12 months 15 days of age, about a week earlier than Albert Barger and younger than Little Albert when he left the hospital. Of most significance, Powell and his colleagues further learned that Albert Barger’s weight at the time of the initial baseline session was very close to that reported for Little Albert by Watson and Rayner (1920), 21 pounds 15 ounces versus 21 pounds, respectively. Douglas Mer- ritte, however, only weighed 14 pounds 14 ounces at this time. Douglas’s extremely low body weight also conflicts with Wat- son and Rayner’s description of Little Albert as a healthy and well-developed child.
Fridlund et al.’s (2012a) analysis of the clips with Little Albert from Watson’s film led them to believe that Albert had numerous behavioral and social deficits that were consistent with neurological impairment resulting from hydrocephalus. In contrast, Digdon, Powell, and Harris’s (2014) analysis of these clips suggested otherwise. For example, Fridlund et al. claimed that Little Albert showed no signs of social referen- cing, the tendency of infants to look toward caretakers when confronted with novelty. However, according to Digdon et al., there do appear to be some instances of what appears to be mutual gaze between Albert and Watson. In addition, Powell et al. (2014) contend that the selective nature of the film clips may account for Fridlund et al.’s observation that Albert seemed focused only on what was in front of him, with little awareness of the people around him. As they pointed out, the clips in Watson’s film were selected to show Albert’s reactions to the stimuli presented to him rather than to the people near him, so off-task behaviors were likely not included in the film. Dig- don et al. further pointed out that these 34 brief clips, averaging only 9 s (SD ¼ 6 s) in length, cannot be considered a represen- tative sample of Albert’s behavior and that it is certainly ques- tionable that anyone could validly diagnose neurological impairment from such a limited sample of behavior.3 Thus, in their opinion, any appraisal of behavioral or neurological deficits from these film clips of Little Albert would, ‘‘at best, be highly speculative.’’4 For more detail on Powell and his coinvestiga- tors’ analysis of these film clips and why the clips comprise an inadequate measure of Albert’s neurological status, see Dig- don, Powell, and Harris (2014) and Powell et al. (2014).
If Albert Barger were Little Albert, what could be said about Albert’s fate? Albert Barger lived a long life, dying in 2007 at the age of 87.5 Did he grow up to have a fear of furry animals and objects? Powell et al. (2014) were surprised when they first learned from Barger’s niece that her uncle had an aversion (but not a particularly strong one) to dogs and animals in general. The aversion, however, appears to have been more of a dislike
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of animals than a phobia, but that his aversion was at least par- tially due to his conditioning experiences cannot be entirely ruled out. In addition, according to Powell et al, Albert’s con- ditioning experiences did not appear to have had any adverse effects on his personality. Sadly, Albert Barger died before anyone could tell him that it was highly likely that he was the famous Little Albert in the psychological literature. As far as his niece knows, her uncle was unaware of the experiment and did not even know that his mother was once a wet nurse. Hence, we will never know what his reaction would have been when learning about the strong possibility that he was Little Albert. However, when asked what her uncle would have thought about all of this, his niece said that ‘‘he would have been thrilled’’ (Bartlett, 2014, p. B10).
As pointed out by Powell et al. (2014), applying Occam’s razor to this situation would indicate that Albert Barger is far more likely to have been Little Albert. The evidence for Albert Barger’s candidacy is more parsimonious than that for Douglas Merritte. Albert Barger matches Little Albert on all of the key attributes, so fewer assumptions are needed.
” His name matches the Albert B. name assigned to the infant in Watson and Rayner’s study.
” His body weight at the time of the initial baseline phase of the experiment matches Little Albert’s reported body weight and his chubby appearance in Watson’s film clips of the experiment.
” His age on the day he left the hospital was the same as Little Albert’s age on that day.
” His general state of health as an infant matches that described by Watson and Rayner (1920).
Douglas Merritte does not match Little Albert on any of these key attributes and thus was likely not Little Albert. However, according to Bartlett (2014), Beck, Fridlund, and Goldie, all Merritte proponents, still believe Douglas Merritte was Little Albert.6 In addition, as pointed out by Powell et al. (2014), although the evidence that Albert Barger was Little Albert is very strong, it is not entirely conclusive. For example, contrary to Watson’s statement that Little Albert was adopted shortly after he left by an out-of-town family (Watson, 1925), it appears that Albert Barger was not adopted. It is possible though that he was informally adopted for a short time after leaving the hospital and then later reunited with his mother, perhaps after her and Charles Martin married. In addition, it is possible that Watson (1925) was wrong, and the Little Albert purported adoption was just a myth because there is no corroborative evidence of such an adoption (Beck et al., 2010). Regardless, even though the Little Albert saga has always had characters and plot, it has never had a credible conclusion. Perhaps now it does.
Finally, if Albert Barger were Little Albert, then Watson was not guilty of the unethical, fraudulent behavior of know- ingly using a neurologically impaired infant in his research.
This is very important because the story alleging such behavior has already become widespread on the Internet (e.g., DeAnge- lis, 2012). Hence, many psychology students have likely been exposed to this story, which has now been shown to be very unlikely. Given that there are already inaccuracy problems with the coverage of the Little Albert experiment in introductory psychology textbooks (see Griggs, 2014), getting the Little Albert identity saga correctly described in our classrooms and textbooks becomes of critical importance.
As a beginning point in doing so, I recommend that psychol- ogy teachers and textbook authors use this article as a guide for a careful examination of the articles cited here in preparing their coverage of the search for Little Albert. This should help to insure its accuracy. The obvious downside of inaccuracies in the coverage of the Little Albert story is that students will be misled into accepting the story as fact, and sadly, it seems that students seldom question the stories that they are told (Burton, 2011). Thus, it is important to the psychological teaching com- munity to identify inaccuracies in our lectures and textbooks, so that they can be corrected and we as teachers and textbook authors do not continue to ‘‘give away’’ false information about our discipline. Hopefully, this article will help in achieving this goal, at least with respect to the Little Albert saga.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
1. An article by Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education
(2014) covers content similar to that in this article but in a less for-
mal style without references. I highly recommend that introductory
psychology teachers and textbook authors read Bartlett’s article
because it will serve as an excellent resource for their lecture and
textbook coverage of the Little Albert story. The online version at
includes video footage of the Little Albert experiment and several
historical photos related to the search for Little Albert.
2. The assessments of Little Albert’s behavior in the film by Fridlund,
a clinical psychologist, and Goldie, a pediatric neurologist, were
made before the discovery of Douglas Merritte’s medical records,
but the evaluation by Waterman, a specialist in childhood psycho-
pathology, was made after the discovery of Merritte’s medical
records (H. P. Beck, personal communication, August 12, 2014).
All three assessments were made independently, and Goldie’s
assessment was blind to Fridlund’s assessment just as Waterman’s
assessment was blind to Fridlund and Goldie’s prior assessments
and tentative hypotheses (Fridlund et al., 2012b).
3. Although Digdon, Powell, and Harris (2014) and Powell et al.
(2014) described the film clips of Little Albert edited from Wat-
son’s (1923) film as 5 min in length and divided into three seg-
ments, Fridlund et al. (2012a) described the clips that they
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analyzed as 4 min in length and divided into four segments. The
reason for these differences is presently unknown.
4. Fridlund et al. (2012a, pp. 21–22) claimed that signs of Albert’s neu-
rological impairment may have eluded other viewers of Watson’s
film because they were expecting to see the healthy, normal baby that
Watson described repeatedly in his writings. But, as pointed out by
Nancy Digdon, these expectancy effects on perception would also
apply to the observations of viewers who believe that Albert is
neurologically impaired (N. Digdon, personal communication, July
8, 2014). If viewers were led to think that Albert was neurologically
impaired, then they would likely see signs of such impairment. To
illustrate the power of such ‘‘expectancy effects,’’ Nancy suggests the
following classroom demonstration, which involves showing the Lit-
tle Albert film in class (free clips of this film are readily available on
the Internet). Before presenting the film, give students a brief handout
to prime one third of the class to expect Albert to be impaired, another
third to expect Albert to be exceptionally well developed, and the final
third with no prime. After the film, have students evaluate Albert’s
developmental status. Differences in students’ appraisals of Albert
should prompt a more general class discussion about the subjectivity
of observations and why scientific approaches require strict controls
to ensure that observations are reliable and valid.
5. Albert Barger’s niece still has some photographs of him. One of
these photographs is included in Bartlett (2014). To the best of my
knowledge, it is the only photograph of Albert Barger as an adult that
has been disseminated to the general public. This photo is available
6. Beck, Fridlund, and Goldie’s continued belief that Douglas Merritte
was Little Albert may be an example of what McRaney (2013) terms
the ‘‘backfire effect’’—when a deep conviction is challenged by con-
tradictory evidence, your belief gets stronger. Just as confirmation
bias shields you when you seek information, the backfire effect
defends you when contradictory information seeks you. Either way,
you stick to your beliefs and do not question them.
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Richard A. Griggs is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psy- chology at the University of Florida. He is the author of over 150 pub- lications, including Psychology: A Concise Introduction, now in its fourth edition, and 45 articles in Teaching of Psychology.
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