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Ethical concerns of Watson's 'Little Albert' study

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2866 words Published: 21st Jul 2021

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1. The first major ethical concern we encountered in this exam period was that of Watson and his “Little Albert” study. The modern code of ethics denounces evoking fear responses from human participants, unless the participant has been made aware of and consented beforehand. As an infant, Albert was obviously unable to give consent and also unable to realize that what he was taking part in was controlled research. Scaring a child to the point where he is visibly terrified and crying seems unequivocally immoral. I take more issue with the fact that Watson didn’t remove the fear in Albert by de-conditioning him, even though he had time to allow for it. The impact of the study might justify ethical wrongs it committed. It is one of the most influential studies on phobias of all time, paving the way for counterconditioning (Cover Jones) and other therapies that have allowed millions of people to overcome incapacitating fears and emotional issues.

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Another case briefly covered this exam period was the study done by Schreiner and Kling on Kluver-Bocy Syndrome. The syndrome is a behavioral disorder that typically occurs as a result of damage or malfunction of the amygdale. In carrying out their research, Schreiner and Kling removed the amygdale of cats and monkeys (Squire 201). This research led to a greater understanding of the brain and the importance of the amygdale, but obviously came at a cost to the animals involved in the testing. Modern research by Rusiko Bourtchouladze has shown the syndrome to hinder the ability to understand feelings and emotions. He describes how they lose their desire to compete or cooperate and an inability to detect sadness, disgust, fear or rage (Bourtchouladze 83). This is in addition to highly unusual sexual practices and various memory and recognition problems. The research was illuminating, but in retrospect, leaving an animal with a disorder in the process seems unethical and avoidable.

The last psychologist I’ll highlight is Harry Harlow, one of the most ethically controversial figures of modern psychology. The knowledge he attempted to gain from his research was noble; understanding the caretaker-child relationship and how this relationship leads to certain behaviors and abnormalities in the child’s maturation. The execution, however, is highly unethical by today’s standards. Many of the monkey’s Harlow experimented on were severely traumatized by their time in the research lab. Harlow employed devices such as his “rape rack” to artificially inseminate monkeys and also a “pit of despair” to produce isolation and depression. In addition, he purposefully tried to evoke fear responses in the animals and admitted to physically abusing some of the subjects. It really doesn’t come as a surprise that many of the subjects of his studies were left permanently psychotic upon the completion of the research.

As ethically deplorable as Harlow’s studies may seem today, the impact of his studies do seem to justify their moral impropriety. The influence and impact of Harlow’s studies are high; they helped improve and educate society about parenting. Many of those from my father’s generation grew up with limited intimacy and affection from their parents. My dad told me that his father rarely showed any sort of physical affection towards him, never once hugging him or telling him that he loved him. The work of Harlow helped illuminate just how important contact comfort and affection is in the relationship between a child and its caregivers. This principle has also helped positively shape the methods used in dealing with children that have been abused and children in orphanages. Furthermore, some study had to be the one that led to a major push in ethical reform of psychological research. Harlow’s highly unethical treatment of his rhesus monkeys was a major factor in the animal advocacy movement and also in the creation of the American Psychological Associations code of ethics. Harlow was wrong, but the publicity and attention he brought to his studies had the side effect of revealing some of the improper and unethical practices that had been occurring within psychological research.

Bourtchouladze, Rusiko. Memories are made of this: how memory works in humans and animals. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Print.

Squire, Larry R.. The history of neuroscience in autobiography . Washington D.C.: Society for Neuroscience, 1996. Print.

2. In contrast to the dominant thinking of the time, John Watson’s behaviorism relied only on observable behav­ior for its information. His “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” is now known as the “behaviorist manifesto” and is one of the most influential documents in the formation of behaviorism. The prevailing school of thought in psychology at the time relied heavily on introspection, but Watson did not believe introspection to be objective enough to be measured and accurately portrayed as science. In hoping to increase this objectivity, he took the focus away from enigmatic mental processes and placed it on empiricist principles that sought to predict and control actions. Emotions to him weren’t understandable through introspection but rather as a response to a stimuli. One of his major pieces of research was his study of Little Albert. Albert, an infant, was exposed to a white rat which he showed no visible fear towards. Watson then began accompanying the presentation of the rat with a loud noise. Eventually Albert was conditioned to associate the two; even when the noise was discontinued, Albert kept his fear response when presented with the rat. This study verified to Watson that conditioned reflexes could be used to explain behavior and that psychological research should be rooted in observable stimuli and responses to these stimuli.

Skinner was a proponent of a school of behaviorism called “radical behaviorism.” In many ways, his behaviorism, which focuses on operant conditioning, has supplanted the behaviorism of Watson. Skinner was focused on behavior as a function of schedules under which rewards are attained. Rather than the reflex focused theory of Watson, Skinner incorporated more the role of consequences in behavior and conditioning. Many human and animal actions can’t simply be explained as reflexes. Writing this paper, for example, is not a reflex and the stimuli that govern it do not precede it. Rather, it is influenced by what follows it, its consequences, such as a good grade and the outcome of a good grade. Of interest to Skinner in understanding behavior are the types of reinforcement we get from our actions. Positive results from a behavior will typically increase that behavior and negative results will decrease it. One of Skinner’s famous studies was that of superstition in the pigeon. Placing pigeon’s in a box that would release food at regular intervals, Skinner found that the pigeons associated the release of the food with whatever coincidental action they had performed as it was delivered. The pigeons would then repeat this action, believing it to have an effect on the releasing of the food. This study helped continue to cement Skinner’s belief in and support for operant conditioning.

Tolman rejected Watson’s reflex based form of behaviorism. He felt that mental processes could be objective and measurable in the same way physical ones were, broadening behaviorism to incorporate the psychological concepts of purpose and cognition. To Tolman, learning does not have to manifest itself in performance, nor is reinforcement needed to connect stimuli. For Tolman, reinforcement is not the essential aspect of learning that Skinner claims it to be. Rather, we can learn things latently and then use them in a flexible manner that may not necessarily be immediate. He used studies involving rats and various mazes to demonstrate that we can learn even when rewards are not present. Rather than a rigid model based in automatic responses, Tolman saw us as creating tentative, cognitive maps that indicate to us routes, paths and relationships that are relevant to goal orientation. His theory of goal-directed behavior focuses on an organism’s behavior, what it is attempting to accomplish with the behavior and where it is going. Tolman also took Skinner’s idea of a “third variable” (a variable other than stimuli and response) and tweaked it to suit his own form of behaviorism. Rather than something external in the environment as Skinner posited, Tolman’s “intervening variable” was something mental occurring within the person or animal, such as hunger, motivation, intelligence, or intention.

A June 2002 survey by the Review of General Psychology chose Skinner as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century and I agree. He is often credited with the change in terminology for renaming academic psychology departments “behaviorism departments” during the 1950’s. His work is highly influential in academia, psychological treatment and therapy, and the understanding of learning, education, communication, and human behavior.

3. The person in psychology that we have covered in class that has resonated most with me is Morton’s study on skull size and it’s use to justify racism. Morton conducted an extremely biased study where he found the skull size of Caucasians to be largest and North American Indian and Africans to be smallest. His study prompted many to believe that Indians and blacks were of a different species and, in a highly Christian influenced culture, that the bible was not directed at them. This implied that African and Native Americans were not destined to heaven as their Caucasian and “Asiatic” counterparts were. His ethnology was accepted as a way to justify racism and slavery against the Africans who were forcefully brought to the U.S. against their will for labor. In regards to the “Indians”, their mistreatment was justified since they were looked at as savages or a subhuman race. In this theory, it was believed that the size of one skull is the decisive factor in terms of one’s mental capacities and belief system where a larger skull is most desirable.

Even if skull size was an accurate way to determine intelligence, it is obviously not true that all Caucasians would have larger skulls than all blacks. There might be some Caucasians with small skulls and blacks with larger. He was selective in choosing his subjects though where he had more women for the groups that were supposedly inferior since generally, women have smaller skulls sizes than men. This produced his desired outcome.

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This was a landmark study because racism had existed long before this study was published. It still continues today after this study was found to be erroneous. At the time of the study though, Caucasians justified the mistreatment of other races. They were inferior and lacked the intellectual capacities so it was not immoral. It was found though that Morton only used data that supported this conclusion and rejected data that might counter his argument.

It is interesting that after this study was found to be false, other eugenic studies have come out insinuating that whites were superior. (Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve comes to mind as a modern example.) These studies show the way the human mind operates. It is obvious that there was a sense of guilt in the mistreatment of other races. The only way to justify these actions to God would be through science where treating an inferior group poorly would not be immoral. The inferior group would not understand this mistreatment. Morton’s study also shows that the groups doing the mistreating knew that what they were doing was not right. They knew that it was not moral to forcefully remove a race and ultimately annihilate it as they did with the Native American race and on the other hand, forcefully bring another race in a country, stripping them from their families, to act as slaves. Another way that the Caucasian race showed their sense of superiority was through the assimilation of other groups. Many Native American tribes were forced into boarding schools where their language was forbidden, converted into Christianity, and forced to embrace western culture. They did not believe the Native culture to be as refined or sophisticated as theirs.

This study seems absurd through the 21st century lens however it was widely accepted at the time. Racism still exists today in more subtle ways. The American Dream is supposedly attainable for all yet there are still disproportionate numbers of whites at the top and racial minorities at the bottom in terms of wealth. Success in this country is determined by factors that are biased towards the upper class Caucasian group. It is possible for other races to be successful but there are more barriers to entry. For one, racism makes some racial groups believe that they are not good enough to make it to college or top jobs in a self fulfilling prophecy. It is disheartening to think that the remnants of this study, however absurd they seem, still negatively affect the “out groups” today.

5) In class we discussed different cases in which scientists have cheated. There are different reasons why these scientists cheated but all are for personal gain or simplifying their studies. The types of cheating are data fabrication, selective exclusion of results, plagiarism, and ‘ghost-writers’. We see these same types of cheating in our world today whether it is in our peers, ourselves, our government, or large corporations. Comparing the case of Kammerer and the actions that resulted in the 2008 government bailout, we see two instances where data fabrication occurred.

In Kammerer’s studies he was trying to prove that acquired traits could be passed down through heredity. Today this is known not to be true but Kammerer proved it through cheating in a study with toads and nuptial pads. The nuptial pads were acquired when toads lived and mated in an aquarium.  He claimed that the offspring of these toads who lived in aquariums and acquired the nuptial pads were born with the pads as well.  It was later found that he had actually injected the offspring with ink to imitate the nuptial pads to support his theory of heredity of acquired traits. Kammerer committed suicide and in a last note, he stood by his word that he did not commit fraud but was suspicious of someone who manipulated his study.

During the financial crisis many large financial institutions were selling securities that they knew were not good investments to their clients. Selling these securities would give them money in the short term. In the long run though, they lost money and many organizations had to declare bankruptcy. They claimed that the government had to bail them out otherwise the whole country’s finances would collapse, which arguably happened anyway. The average American was defrauded into debt through the credit rating system. The ratings are used by investors to determine the risk of the credit ideally making the costs lowest for both borrowers and lenders. Financial products and investments were given high grades even if they were risky or bad investments. The low interest rates were an incentive for Americans to buy things they simply could not afford through borrowing. Often times the bankers would bet against an investment or loan that they gave a high rating to. This would give them more money if the loan failed.

In both cases the motives involved personal gain. In the Kammerer case, he wanted to make a landmark discovery that would put him down in history as one of the greatest scientists. He did not directly have innocent victims but could have misled the public to believe that something was possible that was not. Also, being a scientist, he should have known that future studies would be done involving his theory and would undoubtedly find his theory to be false. In the case of the large financial institutions giving bad loans and falsely rating investments, their incentive was to get more money for themselves regardless of who would suffer. The United States was the victim in this matter causing the greatest recession since the great depression. People lost their savings and homes. The perpetrators were not punished and should have been.

I found the latter case to be far more problematic with fewer consequences. The financial institutions did not seem to have any sort of guilt since it was a large umbrella organization and not one single individual as in the former case. Kammamer obviously felt guilty about his actions and took his own life as a result. In that case tangible things were not taken but rather a false idea was put in the minds of the public. In the latter case, many people lost everything they had. Their careless actions caused many people depression in the aftermath. The individuals on Wall Street failed to perform their job and made the American people pay for their mistakes through their losses and in the tax dollars they used in bailing them out.


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