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Famous Childhood Development Experiments

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

Some experiments in psychology seem destined to make headlines. This lesson discusses three examples of noteworthy experiments in the field of developmental psychology and why they're famous.

Psychology and Research

Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind. Implicit in this definition is the understanding that psychologists are always searching for more information about the human mind. They conduct experiments to ensure their understanding of the mind is up to date. Some studies uncover new information, while others test the current understanding. If we were to look for some of the most noteworthy experiments in the subfield of child development, what would we find?

How do Experiments Become Famous?

Generally, the experiments featured in this lesson reveal important things about child development. That's not always enough to guarantee that a study is remembered by future generations. Often, a study or set of experiments has to take place at the right time for the members of the psychological community to take notice.

The word experiment refers to the most strict form of study. Every aspect of an experiment is designed to observe one set of variables and eliminate others. Two out of three of the experiments mentioned here fit this definition. In the case of the third, experimental psychology hadn't quite developed the modern day idea of experimentation. We've included it, though, as it is one of the most famous examples.

Little Albert and the Rat

The first famous study that we'll discuss is known as the Little Albert experiment. Psychologist John Watson conducted a series of tests on an infant to see if he could induce the child to be afraid of rats. Watson took an infant with no fear of rats and conditioned him to be afraid of rats and similar animals simply by making a loud sound when the child was exposed to the rat. Strictly speaking, Little Albert isn't even really an experiment, as Watson used a single child as a proof of concept. While it was considered a success in its day, the study really has no way to determine whether what worked on Albert would work on another child.

Little Albert was conditioned to fear a white rat, and also gained fear of similar furry objects. Here he is reacting in fear to Santa Claus.
Little Albert and Santa Claus

There are a variety of ethical and technical issues with Watson's work. To appreciate just one of these, let's look at ethics. In modern psychology, if one gives a test subject a condition, such as an irrational fear or phobia of rats, one also has to treat that condition. The idea is that no lasting harm should come from a subject participating in a study. Today, if Watson was allowed to conduct the study, he would need to later condition the child not to fear rats or pay for adequate therapy.

Why is this study so famous? Up to the time of this study (1920), experiments such as Ivan Pavlov's work with dogs, focused on manipulating reflexes through conditioning. In Pavlov's case, he could cause dogs to salivate by ringing a bell. Watson's work was one of the earliest examples of something purely psychological being induced through conditioning. Watson's work suggests at least one way phobias may develop in complex environments.

Harlow's Monkeys

In the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow performed extensive tests and experiments with young monkeys. One of his best known experiments involves the rearing of infant monkeys without their natural mothers. Harlow placed these infants in cages with access to two artificial surrogate mothers. One of these mothers was made of wire and the other was made of soft cloth. Harlow varied whether either mother had a bottle from which the baby could feed. In an overwhelming number of cases, the baby monkeys preferred the cloth mother, even when the wire mother had the bottle. In these cases, the monkeys would scramble over to the wire mother, feed, then return to their cuddly mother.

Harlow performed experiments with monkeys similar to these. The parenting experiments were born out of a need to raise monkeys without their mothers, which were known to be quite protective of infants.
Two monkeys in a cage.

There are ethical issues with Harlow's experiments. Though this portion of the experiment suggests that the cloth surrogate mothers were preferred to the wire ones, both surrogates can be considered inferior to actual maternal care. Quality of life for these monkeys was poor, as monkeys raised without mothers tend to develop difficulty socializing with other monkeys. This study raised awareness of the plight of laboratory animals and led to stricter experimental guidelines.

In Harlow's era, the importance of maternal care was under scrutiny by a number of psychologists. Mothers were considered important to the psychology of developing humans and other primates because of the physical needs they fulfilled, like feeding and cleaning their children. Harlow's work is the most famous in a line of experiments that stress the idea that the emotional security offered by mothers is just as important as their commitment to keeping their children fed.

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