Originally posted on May 23, 2014.
John Watson and Rosalie Rayner made psychologist history with their 1920 report of the fear conditioning of 11-month old “Little Albert.” After repeated pairings of a white rat with an aversive loud noise, Albert reportedly began whimpering at the sight of the rat. Moreover, his fear reaction generalized, to some extent, to the sight of a rabbit, a dog, and a sealskin coat, but not to more dissimilar objects.
Ever since, people have wondered what became of Little Albert. One team of psychologist-sleuths identified him as Douglas Merritte, the son of a campus hospital wet nurse who died of meningitis at age 6. For a forthcoming article in the American Psychologist, another team of sleuths—Russell Powell, Nancy Digdon, Ben Harris, and Christopher Smithson—have identified an even more promising candidate. William Albert Barger who went by “Albert B”—the very name used by Watson and Rayner—neatly fits many of Little Albert’s known characteristics. This Albert was not brain-damaged and was easy-going, though (likely coincidentally, given how Albert’s fears would diminish between sessions) he had an aversion to dogs!
Albert died in 2007, without ever knowing of his early life in a hospital residence, or of his apparent part in psychology’s history.