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The Lost of Ethics in The Little Albert Experiment

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In the modern-day psychological practise certain ethical concerns and guidelines must be followed to ensure a safe experiment conditions to ensure participants are protected from; mental and physical harm/ramifications. The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research outlines the guidelines on ethical conduct for those conducting psychological practise, some of the main guidlines or “values” that are required to be followed are merit, integrity, justice, beneficence and respect. John B. Watson’s famous behavioural and human conditioning experiment, “Little Albert” has over the years raised many ethical concerns and controversy being deemed completely unethical in todays standards. The little Albert experiment is a great example for essay the aim of which is to underline how unethical some experiments really are. 

John B. Watson conducted the little albert experiment in 1920 aiming to study behaviourism in a nine-month-old baby boy who went by the alias “little Albert”. Watson investigated human conditioning using an experimental design method. The experiment was aimed to create a fear response using conditioning methods, as Watson wanted to investigate the roots of human phobias. During the experiment process Watson and his associates would present baby Albert with various stimuli as the independent variables, these included animals like a rat, rabbit, monkey and dog and also non-inanimate objects like cotton wool and burning newspaper. Albert showed no fear when most of these stimuli were shown, instead curiosity but when presented again, Watson made a loud sudden banging sound which would startle the child. This action was repeated multiple times and when presented with these stimuli again, Albert automatically showed fear, crying and moving away. Watsons tests had successfully shown that fear could be a conditioned response in humans.

Today, Watsons experiment would be deemed completely unethical according to the guidelines mentioned in the National Statement of Ethical conduct. The most concerning breach would be that the experiment exposed Albert to psychological harm, as the aim of the experiment was to induce a fear reaction. Though there was consent from Albert’s mother, he was only 9 months at the time was unable to understand or be informed about any possible psychological harm that may occur or to understand the results and conclusion of the experiment. Another issue that has occurred due to the participants age is that Albert was unable to pull out of the experiment as he was too young to verbally communicate with the experimenter. Naturally when he would have wanted to “pull out” of the experiment he would have begun to cry but because the point of the experiment was to create a fear response his distress was ignored and the experiment would resume. The overall effect of the experiment on Albert was long-term fear that was induced into him, though Watson could’ve made an attempt to ‘cure’ the phobias that had been created because of the experiment using a method called systematic desensitisation, no support was offered after the experiment and Albert was left with phobias that had been conditioned without his knowing, understanding or consent.

The study used an experimental procedure to further explain the cause of human phobias and conditioning. Being that the experiment is completely un-ethical as its main goal is to purposely cause long-term fear to the participant, which is unethical according to the ethics guidelines. If this study were to be re-done, a qualitative observational design type would be best suited as it is too unethical to manipulate an independent variable to see the effect on the dependant variable. Experimenters could achieve or gain knowledge about the causes of phobias and whether they can be conditioned, through talking to participants with phobias about how or why they developed it. Through observation and analysis of each participants experience, connections and similarities can be formed about why humans have phobias and whether they were “conditioned” to develop the certain phobia. In this study the independent variable would be the cause that created the phobia, and the dependant would be the participants phobia and their overall reaction and feelings towards it.

By recreating the study with this design type, it would ensure the safety of the participants, psychologically, another positive would be that they most likely would be of an age to consent and understand the study they are partaking in. Though taking the route of gathering data in qualitative form it does offer some issues, one being that in some cases it can be unreliable as all the information is reliant on the participant and the experimenter doesn’t have much control, another issue that may occur would be that it can be difficult to draw comparisons between the two groups and come to a reliable conclusion. Though this design type is the closest to safely and ethically replicating the study it wont produce as accurate data and analysis that Watson was able to record using an experimental method, as his dependant and independent variables were very clear and controlled, and an accurate conclusion was able to be drawn upon, whereas using a qualitative method is somewhat unreliable and overall outcome is not always easy to draw upon. 

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The Lost of Ethics in the Little Albert Experiment. (2023, February 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from
“The Lost of Ethics in the Little Albert Experiment.” GradesFixer, 11 Feb. 2023,
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