The ethical controversies over the experiment conducted by John Watson called “Little Albert” may arise only in the light of the current situation in the social perception of psychology and ethical behavior of a psychologist towards the patients and the ethical code established for the field of psychology in 1953.
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The main question that should be asked concerns the ethical behavior of John Watson at the moment of conducting such a debatable experiment. Was his idea based on the desire to become a well-known and acknowledged psychologist or he was driven by the attempt to understand and explain the human nature and the basic functions of the behavioral mechanism or both?
Though we may receive the answer only by interviewing John Watson personally which is impossible, we may develop our assumptions concerning the genuine ethical decision that stood behind the controversial actions of the ‘father’ of behaviorism.
The episode that is currently treated as an example of unethical behavior in psychology does not deserve the criticism it currently receives due to the number of differences in ethical codes and social perception of human rights issues. For instance, it was quite normal for researchers to receive permission for this kind of experiments conducted over the least protected social groups.
Who can be less protected from such interventions as orphans, prisoners, or mentally-ill people? In this respect, the patient of John Watson was a rather protected because as reported in the study by Harris (2011), “Albert had been volunteered by his mother, who lived and worked at an orphanage adjacent to Johns Hopkins University” (p. 1).
In this respect, who is responsible for the actions of the patient’s mother and who should be punished if such a mother would be publicly considered as irresponsible?
Another problem that occurs on this stage is that some facts may be interpreted in many ways as well as Bible can be interpreted in thousands of ways. Hobbs questions the validity of facts and experiment as a whole with regard to the number of errors that usually occur in experiments, researches, and reports.
As suggested in the study by Hobbs (2010), the facts can be misrepresented in the studies that are aimed at analyzing any original work. As such, it is impossible to even think about replication of the “Little Albert” experiment or other practices that are claimed to be unethical in the framework of contemporary psychology.
“The fact that it [experiment] took place a long time ago allows the textbook authors to turn their ethical reservations to the advantage of contemporary psychology by claiming that it could no longer be carried out, because of strict ethical controls in place today” (Hobbs, 2010, p. 82). In fact, a few people would pay attention to validity of the experiment if they notice the unethical behavior first.
The most interesting part of the ethical controversy concerns the personality of the patient and his future because numerous reports and investigations on this issue did not bring results. How a person fearing of dogs, rats, and furry things can live in the world where images of fur and pets are everywhere?
Was it difficult for this patient to adjust his life to socially accepted standards? In this respect, the experiment cannot be considered ethical because the author did not provide accurate evidence of the reversal process with the fear of rats, monkeys, and other furry objects.
The process of transformation should be analyzed and researched in order to evaluate the duration of the effect, the methods that can be applied to bring the patient’s condition back, and others. However, this can be considered a part of the validity problem rather than the ethical controversy. Do these concepts always come together and are they interchangeable?
The replication of the experiment is impossible for the present time when the phenomenon of human rights and their violation is one of the burning issues against which the science opposes from time to time by offering genetics experiments and other investigation that are, nevertheless, are rejected.
Sometimes, scholars may present their variant of truth to persuade the public in their high aims and safety of this or that issue. Harris (2011) claims that knowing and analyzing myths is the way to learning the history and the way it is created (p. 4).
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So, analysis of different version of the reports on the “Little Albert” experiment can be the way out of this tunnel of debates and controversial ethical issues. Nevertheless, it is still questionable whether current ethical principles in psychology would suggest a different approach to the study on Albert.
If Albert was an orphan, he could be tortured and investigated as a laboratory pet. This is the primary concern of this experiment and researchers that would like to replicate a number of similar experiments but do not know how to pass the gates of ethical codes and legislation having such ideas for application.
Conditioned fear: can the patient be returned to the initial condition or such a fear is the sentence for the rest of his life? Nevertheless, Watson either did not want to study the reversal of condition or was too busy with his career and making the living but he did not continue his experiments because, as it was reported, he could not find the baby anymore.
The thing is that Albert was an orphan and he could have been adopted by the time when Watson decided to make everything accurately the opposite.
The modern approach to the study on Albert would require revision of the ethical codes existing in psychology and abolishment of human rights because no human being can be a part of the experiment without doing it at his/her individual will. However, parents are responsible for the wellbeing of their children until certain age which is different in different countries.
Would a parent give the child for experiment knowing that this may influence the child’s behavior in future? How can we tell that a person would feel no stress and have no disorders in terms of mental condition and social behavior after such experiments?
In this respect, every person is protected though psychology has a lot of gaps that can be only filled in after receiving results on such experiments. Though the experiment called “Little Albert” contributed greatly to the development of behaviorism as a branch of practical psychology, it was conducted by a person who got used to shock the public.
The ethical controversies were a part of John Watson’s life, especially regarding the private life that was not as private as he wanted. “Watson (also) became romantically involved with his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner. Their relationship resulted in a highly publicized divorce trial and Watson’s dismissal” (Beck, Levinson, & Irons, 2009, p. 605).
This was the period when Watson had conducted the “Little Albert” experiment and Rosalie was his assistant. However, Watson did not try to hide his relationship from his wife and was expecting some understanding and support from his colleagues while they publicly criticized his actions and behavior (Schultz & Schultz, 2007, pp. 301-302).
As such, a romantic affair can be considered the reason for lack of ethical instincts in Watson. However, the affair took place a bit later than the experiment itself. Nevertheless, one important conclusion can be made after reviewing the experiment and Watson being involved in extramarital affair as such type of behavior is typical for him and he is little, if any, concerned about the opinion of public.
The private life of every person is the matter of this person as well as the ethical principles and codes applied by this individual unless they affect other people in a negative manner or influence them when they do not want to experience such an impact.
In other words, the extramarital affairs of John Watson should not be involved into analysis of his contribution to psychology and study of behaviorism and the “Little Albert” experiment. However, the ethical principles of this person did not interfere with his decision to affect the fears and behavior of a little unprotected baby.
Moreover, he was forced to resign from the university and find another way to apply his experimental methods to practice and make money in this way. His ‘ethical’ behavior made him lose the job he loved and search a way out in the sphere of business.
The practical applications of psychology and its section of behaviorism can be considered the most interesting part of the psychological discourse because theory is not worse being considered if it does not have practical application; at least, theory is not as interesting as practice.
However, this was not the primary reason for Watson’s departure from the profession of psychology and entry into the advertising profession which opened the door for practical applications of psychology that would change the American zeitgeist.
As Watson claimed, “No matter what it is, like the good naturalist you are, you must never lose sight of your experimental animal – the consumer” (quoted in Mash & Wolfe, 2008, p. 9). Thus, he focused on the application of theory in human behavior and ways of influencing it on practice with the help of advertising.
The techniques currently used in advertising can be attributed to John Watson as the ‘father’ of behaviorism who coined all concept existing in psychology as integral parts and clearly defined components of practical psychology.
Every person is viewed as a consumer by advertisers who try to apply new ways of changing the product perception and develop brand loyalty, address different audiences and reflect the image of the product/brand with the help of properly designed advertisements and brand images.
Though every person thinks that those tricks do not work, we continue to buy tones of irrelevant staff being influenced by advertising campaigns launched by the international corporations to promote their products and brands and persuade the target audience that people really need those issues in their daily life.
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.
Harris, B. (2011). Letting go of little Albert: Disciplinary memory, history, and the uses of myth. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 47(1), 1-17.
Hobbs, S. (2010). Little Albert: Gone but not forgotten. History & Philosophy of Psychology, 12(2), 79-83.
Mash, E. J., & Wolfe, D. A. (2008). Abnormal child psychology (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2007) A history of modern psychology (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.