Phenomenological Psychology

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Freud’s Case of Little Hans versus Watson’s Case of Little Albert – Who’s Right?

September 14th, 2012 by David Kronemyer · 3 Comments

Freud’s interpretation of his Little Hans case is stimulating; if nothing else, it’s an interesting work of literature.  I wonder, though, if it’s possible to come up with a simpler interpretation of the evidence.  As a general principle, simpler interpretations are preferable to more complex ones (cf. “Occam’s Razor”).  What if instead of Freud’s complex psychoanalytic superstructure, we adopted more of a behavioral type of approach?  Conceptualizing the case in this manner, we might say the frightening event involving the horse who collapsed was an unconditioned stimulus (US) and his subsequent fear of going into the street (seeing horses, seeing them pull heavy loads, boxes falling off carts, etc.) was an unconditioned response (UR).  Then, he paired the US with a conditioned stimulus (CS), which was fear of horse penises, fear he’d be bitten, fear the horse will collapse, etc.  This CS later became higher-order associated or secondarily paired with other aspects of the case, such as where babies come from, jealousy of his father displacing his mother’s affections, sexual impulses, etc.  

This reformulation makes the case almost identical to the Little Albert experiment conducted by John B. Watson.  He was shown a white mouse and, because it was cute and not threatening, he started to play with it.  Then, Watson started clanging a steel bar with a hammer whenever the rat was brought into the room.  This naturally frightened Little Albert.  Watson then just brought the rat into the room, without clanging the steel bar.  As you might have guessed, Little Albert now was afraid of the rat.  Why?  He had been conditioned to associate it with the loud noise.  The loud noise was the US.  It resulted in fear, which was the UR.  The white rat originally was a neutral stimulus.  However, as it became paired or associated with the loud noise, it became a CS.  The CR was fear.  Pretty soon, Little Albert was afraid of anything that was white, even nice fluffy rabbits or a white blanket.  The feared stimulus became generalized to other ambiguous but analogous or adjacent situations.

It’s true this deemphasizes anything having to do with Little Hans’ mind, highlighting the primary difference between behavioristic and psycho-dynamic approaches.  Taking this objection at face value, though: (1) Freud’s explanation is complicated and involves attributing a large number of ideations to the child; (2) It’s not clear a young child’s mind is neurobiologically equipped to devise constructs as complex as the ones Freud attributes to it, but rather contends with the world in far simpler terms (such as being hungry); (3) who is Freud to say he knows the contents of a child’s mind, the child has little capacity for introspection and Freud certainly doesn’t remember what he was thinking when he was that young; and (4) how do we know Freud isn’t just imagining and projecting onto the child’s mind his own huge elaborate repressed Victorian-era fantasy?  I think these objections are decisive.  Freud himself seemed to recognize this with his later development of id-based drive theory (though even then he attributes a number of drives to the child that seem to be more learned than instinctual).  I’m not saying the child’s mind is a black box and that the child is driven solely by behavioral stimuli.  I concur there is some cognitive thought process going on.  Due to phenomena such as infantile amnesia, though, it’s not clear we’ll ever know what it is.  As it gets older, there will come a time when, due to brain development, the child will acquire autobiographical memory.  Until then, though, the child’s psychology seems pretty speculative.