Classical conditioning is the process of learning whereby an unconditioned stimulus is paired with a conditional stimulus. It is a process of behavior modification in which the subject responds to a previously neutral stimulus in a desired manner when it is repeatedly presented along with an unconditional stimulus. There have been various speculations by different literature on the possibility of conditioning emotional responses, but the experimental evidence has usually been lacking. There has been a suggestion that there must be a way in which stimuli can call out emotions. John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner decided to put the matter to test through the little Albert experiment. Albert was a little child who was reared in the hospital environment. He was of great health right from birth and lived a normal life. At birth, he weighed 21 pounds. His great stability made him a suitable candidate for the experiment.
At approximately nine months, the authors carried out emotional tests on little Albert. Albert was confronted with different stimuli including a white rat, dog, rabbit, monkey, masks with or without hair, and cotton wool. Albert’s reactions were recorded and preserved. At no time did he show any signs of fear to any of the situations. Albert never cried at any of those situations. Next he was confronted with sound to ascertain whether a fear reaction could be induced by a loud sound. The sound was found to give means of testing other important factors as the conditioning of the fear of an animal (Watson & Rayner, 1920). A case in point is the conditioning of the fear of a white rat through the visually presenting it and the simultaneous striking of a hanging steel bar.
The initial pairing of the banging bar and a white rat was to form conditioned emotional responses. The experiment took place when Albert was eleven months and three days. Before the commencement of the experiment, Albert was subjected to the regular emotional tests and once again, there was not even the slightest sign of fear. The white rat was suddenly removed from the basket, and Albert tried to reach for it using his left hand. Just as Albert was about to touch the rat, the bar was struck. He fell forward burying his head on the mattress, but without crying. Just as he was about to touch the rat again with his right hand, the bell was struck once more, and he fell forward and cried (Watson & Rayner, 1920).
After seven days, the same experiment was repeated. On this occasion, joint stimulations were used. At the end, when the rat was shown little Albert cried. The experiment proved that a conditioned fear response could be induced as it would have been pictured theoretically. It proved that classical conditioning could be used to condition an emotional response through the use of unconditional and conditional stimulus. An unconditional stimulus is one that naturally or automatically triggers a response while a conditioned stimulus is a previously neutral stimulus that associates with the unconditional stimulus to trigger a conditioned response (Beecroft, 1966). In little Albert experiment, the neutral stimulus was the white rat, unconditional stimulus the loud noise, and the conditional stimulus the white rat. The unconditional and conditional responses were fear. In classrooms, it is important for teachers to ensure that learners are associated with positive emotional experiences throughout learning. Negative emotional responses can lead to bad results such as phobia. For example, a student might dislike a certain subject just because he or she is punished or humiliated by the teacher.
At eleven months and fifteen days, tests were carried out to establish whether a conditional response established on one object could be transferred to another. When blocks were placed in front of Albert, he played with them cheerfully but when the white rat was introduced, he moved away as far as possible. Little Albert exhibited the same responses he showed on the previous experiment. This was evidence that the conditioned response had been carried over after the five days. Different objects including rabbit, dog, fur seal, cotton wool and Santa Claus mask were used. Between the intervals, the blocks were used, and Albert played with them cheerfully. When the rabbit was introduced, his reaction was much pronounced. He reacted negatively to it by crying and whimpering away like he did when the white rat was introduced. The dog did not elicit the same reaction but when it was brought much closer to him, he turned away and began to cry. The fur coat made him fret, cry and turn away from it. The introduction of the cotton wool made him shy away for some time, but his manipulative instinct made him negativism to the cotton wool. In the end when the Santa Claus mask was introduced, he was pronouncedly negative.
After eleven months and twenty days, the experiment was repeated but the responses were much less marked like in the previous cases. The striking of the rod elicited much more negative responses than previously witnessed. From the experiment, Watson and Raynor (1920) found out that emotional transfers did not take place but conditional transfers could take place on other objects. This is referred to as stimulus generalization. It is the tendency of a given subject to respond to a stimulus similarly but not identical to the original conditional stimulus (Beecroft, 1966). Little Albert was conditioned to fear a white rat, and when other stimuli of a similar nature including the white rabbit were introduced, Albert exhibited fear in a similar fashion to when the white rat was introduced.
Watson and Rayner carried out a third experiment on Albert to determine the effect time had on conditioned emotional responses. The experiment was carried out approximately a month after the previous experiment, when Albert was one year and twenty-one days old. During the one month, Albert maintained his regular nursery routine but was brought into the laboratory for regular checks upon the general development, left and right-handedness and imitation.
On the material day, the Santa Claus mask, fur coat, blocks, rat and rabbit were used. When the Santa Claus mask was introduced and was forced to touch it, he cried. This was repeated severally and in the end, he cried at the sight of the mask. Upon the introduction of the fur coat and placing it close to him, he was afraid. He cried when he accidentally touched it. The coat was withdrawn and introduced later, and Albert immediately began to fret. When the blocks were introduced, he played with them as he did before. Albert did not exhibit the same reaction as in previous cases when the white rat was introduced. The rat crawled towards him and against his chest, but he did not withdraw or cry. The rabbit was then introduced, and he went to the extent of touching its ears. The dog that was rather active made him cry when it was brought further close to him. The experiments showed that conditioned emotional responses together with those conditioned by transfer would persist but with a certain loss of intensity in the reaction. This explains the principle of extinction. Extinction is simply the weakening of a conditioned response over time (Beecroft, 1966). It is when the occurrences of conditioned responses decrease or disappear over time. In Little Albert’s experiment, extinction can be seen in the case whereby Albert’s fear of the white rat had decreased over the one month period and was now able to interact with it with caution. This was unlike the previous cases where he used to cry at the sight of the rat.
Watson and Rayner’s study has generated much criticism over the years because of ethical issues. The experiment was teaching a young and innocent child to be scared of harmless objects, and this meant that Albert was experiencing both mental and physical harm (Graziano & Matthieu, 1971). Little Albert was also not unconditioned meaning that he was allowed to live with all that classical conditioning which might have affected him all his life. This would have led to the boy growing up with a phobia white objects and furry objects. Another ethical issue is that Watson did not seek the consent of Albert to be involved in the experiment. Watson may be seen to have taken advantage of a young boy who could not give consent. This is against modern ethics. Research has shown that the story of Little Albert did not end well as he died of hydrocephalus at a tender age of six.
Beecroft, R. S. (1966). Classical conditioning. Goleta, Calif: Psychonomic Press.
Graziano, A. M., & Matthieu, M. M. (1971). Behavior therapy with children. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.
Watson J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920).Conditioned emotional reactions: Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1–14.