How to terrify an infant

September 2, 2015

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Nature vs Nurture. The ultimate psychological debate. For some reason, we've spent almost 100 years debating whether people are a product of the environment they are raised in, or a product of their...

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Nature vs Nurture. The ultimate psychological debate. For some reason, we've spent almost 100 years debating whether people are a product of the environment they are raised in, or a product of their genetics. The obvious answer, of course, is both. There will always be lunatics though. John Watson was one such lunatic. Here's a quote from him in 1924:

There is no such thing as an inheritance of capacity, talent, temperament, mental constitution, and behavioural characteristics
His Behaviourist Manifesto stated that infants are tabula rasa, or 'blank slates'; a view shared by many psychologists (and a view which heavily influenced psychology for about 30 years before one of the slickest psychs ever to wear a lab coat finally convinced people that could not possibly be all there was to the story). It also stated that in order to become a 'true science' we must only observe behaviour and not draw conclusions about 'mental life'. This view was called 'radical behaviourism' and is fairly dopey.

In an effort to display the truth of his conclusions, Watson decided to petrify an infant with the help of his graduate student of the time. Watson took a child from a hospital (paying the mother $1 for his research participation). Unbeknownst to the mother, the child was about to be systematically terrified. In keeping with the principles of classical conditioning and his own special brand of lunacy, Watson let the child play with a rat. He noted that the child was curious and not afraid. He then started banging a loud steel bar with a hammer every time the rat was introduced to the child. He noted that the child responded with 'crying' and 'fear'. He then reintroduced the rat without the sound, and noted that the child was now understandably alarmed by its appearance. Watson had successfully demonstrated that classical conditioning was still a thing (having already been well-documented noted much earlier). He also demonstrated something known as 'stimulus generalisation'. The child was now also afraid of other white fluffy things. Watson, surprisingly, was eventually booted out of his University. He followed his bizarre career in psychological research with a successful career in advertising because of course he did. The fate of the child, h0wever, actually remained a mystery until 2010 (some 80 years later). Known only by the pseudonym Albert B., only recently were we able to positively identify the child as Douglas Merritte, who unfortunately died of acquired hydrocephalus (which is not a symptom of a heart attack, I checked). We don't always learn from the environment though. We also learn by talking to ourselves (but chances are, you're doing it wrong). There have been more than one loony posing as a psychologist. Check out our series on 'Broken Brains' to find more. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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