Scientific detective stories are a lot of fun. So I was intrigued by this article by Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a famous case in the history of psychology that is apparently well known to psychologists but was unknown to me. It has many of the elements that make for a gripping tale.
It concerns the identity of an infant known in the literature as Little Albert who was the subject of an experiment in behavioral conditioning where the infant was made to become fearful of animals by repeatedly making a loud sound just when an animal appears. Grainy video footage exists of the experiment conducted in 1919 and 1920 by psychologist John Watson, a founder of the field of behavioral psychology, whose career was later abruptly ended by scandal.
The real identity of that baby has long intrigued students of psychology. Who was he? What happened to him? Did Watson really saddle the poor kid with a lifelong terror of animals?
Those questions were long thought to be unanswerable. Watson provided relatively scant biographical detail in his notes on the experiment, and he burned his papers before his death, leaving the curious without much to go on.
The ethically dubious experiment (deliberately instilling in an infant a fear of animals would be promptly disallowed by today’s Institutional Review Boards) made it into psychology textbooks, prompting successive generations of students to be curious about who the baby was and what subsequently happened to him and whether he had a lifelong fear of animals. In 2001, some students prompted their professor to try and find the answers and he arrived at one conclusion but others doubted that he had got it right and their finger pointed in a different direction.
This is not an important question. Who the baby was has no real significance now since all the main players are dead. But I found it fascinating the way researchers set about trying to solve this little puzzle.