In 1920, in the early days of psychology (Freud had only stopped prescribing cocaine to his patients a couple decades earlier), a man by the name of John B. Watson did an ‘experiment’ to prove that fear was a learned behaviour.
So what better way to find out than to condition a 11-month old baby boy to learn to fear rabbits?
Watson, who was a respected Johns Hopkins researcher, managed to get his hands on an infant and began by introducing the child to a rat, a dog, a rabbit, a sealskin fur coat and cotton balls.
The child, who later came to be known infamously as Little Albert, showed no natural aversion to any of these things.
But, in a very short time he began to know what absolute terror felt like.
This was the result of Watson’s clever conditioning stimulus, namely a claw hammer he used to sharply bang against a piece of metal right behind the boy’s head whenever he was given one of the animals or objects to play with.
The child was startled and soon after when he was presented with so much as the harmless rabbit, he would cry, hide his face or try to crawl off the examination table where the experiments took place.
Watson originally intended to conduct a second phase of the experiment where he would deprogram the fear conditioning in Little Albert, but he didn’t manage to get around to it before he was fired from his position for having an affair with his secretary.
No one knows who Little Albert was and Watson burned his notes in 1958.
And as for Albert?
Nobody knows what became of him.