This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by professional essay writers.

Describe and Critically Evaluate Watson and Rayner’s (1920) Study with Little Albert.

downloadDownload printPrint

Pssst… we can write an original essay just for you.

Any subject. Any type of essay. We’ll even meet a 3-hour deadline.

Get your price

121 writers online

Describe and Critically Evaluate Watson and Rayner’s (1920) Study with Little Albert. essay
Download PDF


Watson and Rayner (1920) investigated classical conditioning, a behaviorist theory of learning. The researchers conditioned fear into little Albert and showed that fear can be learned. This research was ground-breaking as it demonstrated how phobias can be acquired at a young age. Although Albert was psychologically harmed Jones (1924) found fear could be unconditioned and so Watson and Rayner’s (1920) theory has been used to develop systematic desensitization (Wolpe, 1958). In this essay, I will describe Watson and Rayner (1920) and discuss potential criticisms and applications of their research.

Watson and Rayner (1920)

Watson and Rayner (1920) aimed to research if fear can be conditioned if this fear can be generalized and if time has an effect on responses. They also aimed to find out how the conditioning could be removed. To investigate this Watson and Rayner (1920) used little Albert who was a healthy and unemotional child at the hospital where the study was conducted. Little Albert was presented with a white rat, rabbit, and other similar stimuli but none of these provoked a fear reaction. A hammer hit a steel bar when the rat was presented which caused Albert to cry. Over many trials, Albert began to show fear towards the rat without any loud noise. Here the unconditioned stimulus (the loud noise) was paired with a neutral stimulus (the rat) to produce the conditioned response (fear). So the researchers had conditioned Albert to fear the rat and they also found that the fear generalized to other objects. But Albert only showed fear to similar objects that were white and fluffy such as a Santa mask and so discriminated. The researchers also found that the same fear responses were still present after a time period but they were weaker.


Watson and Rayner (1920) did not test their fourth research aim to find out if the conditioning could be removed because little Albert left the hospital with his mother. But they had a theory that fear could be removed by combining the conditioned stimulus with a pleasant unconditioned stimulus during reconditioning. To test this theory Jones (1924) recruited little Peter who was afraid of rabbits. The rabbit was presented at a big distance from Peter who was given a cookie then the distance was gradually decreased (the successive approximation of conditioned stimulus). Peter learned not to fear the rabbit and so this supports Watson and Rayner’s (1920) theory as it suggests reconditioning does work. However, Peter also observed non-fearful children interacting with rabbits which are a confounding variable as it could mean the fear response was removed due to imitation and not classical conditioning.

A strength of reconditioning is that it has been used to develop systematic desensitization (Wolpe, 1958); a successful therapy for phobias. This is where the client is first taught relaxation techniques and then creates a fear hierarchy eg. Cartoon spider, a picture of a spider, touching a spider. The client works through the hierarchy relaxing at each stage; this way the client is reconditioned to associate the feared stimulus with relaxation, thus reducing fear. This therapy has proven to be successful. For example, Sturges and Sturges (1998) reported an 11-year-old girl was cured of her fear of elevators using systematic desensitization. Therefore, Watson and Rayner’s (1920) reconditioning theory has been applied to therapy to better people’s lives.

A criticism of Watson and Rayner’s (1920) study is that it is unethical. This is because little Albert was conditioned to fear objects which caused him psychological harm shown by his intense fear of the white rat and other similar objects. Furthermore, since little Albert left the hospital with his mother, the researchers did not have the opportunity to reverse the negative effects of this study. But whether Albert actually suffered any ill effects is unknown as his identity remains anonymous even though many researchers try to discover his identity (Beck, Levinson, and Irons (2009) believe that he was Douglas Merritte). Although Albert may have suffered harm and this study is considered unethical by modern standards until his identity is unknown we cannot be certain if he did suffer any negative consequences.


Watson and Rayner (1920) conducted a revolutionary study into classical conditioning which provided evidence on how fear can be conditioned. There are ethical concerns but the question of Albert’s identity still remains so we cannot tell whether these concerns are valid. Nonetheless, the benefits to our understanding and knowledge as well as applications to therapy seem to outweigh the costs.

Remember: This is just a sample from a fellow student.

Your time is important. Let us write you an essay from scratch

experts 450+ experts on 30 subjects ready to help you just now

delivery Starting from 3 hours delivery

Find Free Essays

We provide you with original essay samples, perfect formatting and styling

Cite this Essay

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Describe and critically evaluate Watson and Rayner’s (1920) study with little Albert. (2018, April 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from
“Describe and critically evaluate Watson and Rayner’s (1920) study with little Albert.” GradesFixer, 30 Apr. 2018,
Describe and critically evaluate Watson and Rayner’s (1920) study with little Albert. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 Oct. 2021].
Describe and critically evaluate Watson and Rayner’s (1920) study with little Albert. [Internet] GradesFixer. 2018 Apr 30 [cited 2021 Oct 20]. Available from:
copy to clipboard

Sorry, copying is not allowed on our website. If you’d like this or any other sample, we’ll happily email it to you.

    By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.


    Attention! This essay is not unique. You can get a 100% Plagiarism-FREE one in 30 sec

    Receive a 100% plagiarism-free essay on your email just for $4.99
    get unique paper
    *Public papers are open and may contain not unique content
    download public sample

    Sorry, we could not paraphrase this essay. Our professional writers can rewrite it and get you a unique paper.



    Please check your inbox.

    Want us to write one just for you? We can custom edit this essay into an original, 100% plagiarism free essay.

    thanks-icon Order now

    Hi there!

    Are you interested in getting a customized paper?

    Check it out!
    Having trouble finding the perfect essay? We’ve got you covered. Hire a writer

    Haven't found the right essay?

    Get an expert to write you the one you need!


    Professional writers and researchers


    Sources and citation are provided


    3 hour delivery