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Book Review of "Behave" by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Book Review of "Behave" by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Behave takes its narrative from the lives of the two people behind one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology: the analysis of the development of fear conditioning (phobia) in an infant forever memorialized in the history of psychology as Little Albert. Anyone familiar with the Little Albert study probably also is familiar with the scandal associated with the affair between its two investigators, John Broaddus Watson (who was married at the time to Mary Ickes, with whom he had two children) and his graduate research assistant, Rosalie Rayner.

At the time of both the study and the affair, Watson, the founder of the psychological point of view known as behaviorism, was the most well-known psychologist in America, and perhaps second only to Sigmund Freud in the world. Even after he resigned his position at Johns Hopkins University in the wake of the scandal, Watson continued in the public eye through a number of important books and articles on child rearing, marriage and other topics in popular magazines. With Rayner, whom he married immediately after his divorce from his first wife was finalized, he wrote a best-selling book on child rearing, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, that became a standard reference for parents from its publication in 1928 until it was overshadowed by Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in the mid-1940s.

Even if you know about all or any of the above, you may learn some new details by reading this novel. I didn’t know, for example, that the two Watson-Rayner offspring were named Billy (William) and Jamie (James) as a play on the name of the generally acknowledged father of American psychology, William James (William and James). Or that Alberta was the second name of Rayner, presumably taken from her father’s name, Albert. “Little Albert,” however, may have been a coincidence rather than a playful renaming by Watson and Rayner. Powell, Digdon, Russell, and Smithson (2014) present strong evidence that Little Albert was in fact an infant named William Albert Barger. Thus his naming, Albert B., was simply following a practice of the time (according to Powell et al.) of using an abbreviated, thinly disguised identifying name.

Narrated in the first person from the standpoint of Rosalie Rayner, the first part of the novel, up to her marriage, is full of her youthful optimism, adventure, clandestine liaisons, and the excitement of scientific discovery. The second part describes their post-marriage life and Watson’s continued success in both the world of advertising, where he ends up after resigning from Johns Hopkins when the scandal comes to light, and in the world of popular psychology. It also paints a concurrent, contrasting picture of personal lives in some dishevelment by alcoholism (his), accommodating extra-marital liaisons by Watson and perhaps by Rayner (although this may be more literary license on the part of the novelist), and children with a host of problems to which Watson’s insistence on a rather stern upbringing is the contributing factor, as suggested by the author. The post-marriage period of the novel covers far more ground than the first, with a resulting abridgement of the story line and loss of details. Most of what is revealed about Watson’s work in advertising has to do with his extra-marital liaisons (and even this material is sketchy). Rayner’s character seemed generally unexplored and underdeveloped. She becomes mostly an unrevealed, rather unidimensional narrator of the quotidien of the Watson – Rayner post marriage years. One develops little understanding of or empathy for either of them in this novel. 

The lines separating fact and fiction were sometimes hard to discern, as in the case of Rayner’s own liaison(s), but perhaps this is the mark of a good historical novelist. One thing we do know is that the lives of none of Watson’s children, from either the first or second marriage, went all that well. His first-born (of Mary Ickes Watson) child’s daughter – Watson’s granddaughter - actress Mariette Hartley, has suggested many of her mother’s psychological ails were related to Watson’s child-rearing ideas. Indeed, the Watson-Rayner child rearing book has gone down in infamy in contemporary psychology, fairly so or not. Their suggestions about withholding affection, which receive the bulk of attention in the novel, have fared particularly poorly. They have become part of a general folklore about the evils of behaviorism, an unfortunate outcome for a psychological viewpoint that has given contemporary psychology its very foundation, as well as contributed enormously to the betterment of the human condition through its applications in such fields as medicine, education, mental health, and the environmental sciences. It is worth noting that one area receiving particularly critical attention in the novel is the toilet training of young children. Despite the criticisms dumped on Watson and Rayner, and by implication others who follow the behaviorist world view, followers of later-times behaviorist B. F. Skinner have developed highly popular and widely accepted methods of toilet training that rely on arranging environmental conditions to optimize success in this area. Most notably, Azrin and Foxx’s, Toilet Training in Less than a Day has sold more than 2 million copies. In addition, a proven, though less well known, program for toilet training very young infants – less than a year old - was described by Smeets, Lancioni, Ball, & Oliva (1985; still available today).

Two scientific points that ring hollow have to do with the author’s observations about the Watson-Rayner experiments with Little Albert. Romano-Lax takes Watson to task for misleading the scientific community by not revealing at the time that Albert probably suffered from hydrocephaly. Indeed, she questions his research ethics for misrepresenting Albert as a “normal” infant, saying that by so doing Watson “undermined his scientific premises.” In the original research report (1920 Journal of Experimental Psychology) Watson and Rayner observed the following about their subject: “Albert's life was normal: he was healthy from birth and one of the best developed youngsters ever brought to the hospital, weighing twenty-one pounds at nine months of age. He was on the whole stolid and unemotional. His stability was one of the principal reasons for using him as a subject in this test.” (p. 33). Such a description would be accurately characterized as unethical if Albert in fact suffered from hydrocephaly. The child Romano-Lax asserts to be Albert was first reported by Beck, Levinson, and Irons (2009). Subsequently, Fridlund, Beck, Goldie, and Irons (2012) concluded that this child suffered from congenital hydrocephaly. For reasons unexplained, Romano-Lax chooses the Beck and colleagues accounts over another, that of Powell, Digdon, Russell and Harris (2014). Powell et al. strongly and convincingly refuted Beck and colleagues’ conclusions, suggesting instead that Albert was most likely another child, William Albert Barger, rather than the one identified by Beck et al. (2009). They further noted that the child was, in fact, most likely as Watson and Rayner described him – in a word, “normal.” If, as many Watson scholars agree, Powell et al. are correct, then Watson has been done a considerable disservice in Behave by the ethical raking over the coals given him by Romano-Lax.

Following Beck and colleagues, Romano-Lax also claims that there are few replications of the Watson-Rayner finding. Reviewing three frequently cited failures to replicate the Watson-Rayner experiment, Delprato and Mc Glynn (1984, p. 7) concluded that each of these attempted replications used “truly poor conditioning procedures,” strongly questioning them as evidence of failures to replicate, and leaving intact the Watson-Rayner findings of fear conditioning. In fact, the general finding of fear conditioning produced by pairing previously neutral stimuli with a fear-evoking stimulus, for which the Watson-Rayner experiment is most famous, has been replicated literally thousands of times in psychological laboratories with many species around the world.

Romano-Lax also notes in her notes at the end of the novel that “we recognize larger problems with the experiment’s design, limited sample size, subjective recording of results, and more.” She is not, of course, the first to register concerns with the design. In his textbook, Learning, Catania (e.g., 2013), for example, noted, based on Watson and Rayner’s descriptions, that punishment, rather than Pavlovian conditioning, may have contributed to Albert’s reticence about touching the rat. As for the “limited sample size,” it’s important to remember that some of the most important psychological research of the 19th and 20th centuries was conducted with very few subjects indeed. Herman Ebbinghaus, the father of the experimental study of memory, drew many of his conclusions from the study of a single person – himself. Freud’s most famous scientific publications were reports of single cases. And the most important behaviorist of the 20th century, B. F. Skinner, built his conceptual framework on the experimental analysis of the behavior of individual organisms. Thus, Watson and Rayner seem to be in solid methodological company in their analysis of a single subject. Concerning objectivity, although there were subjective reports of Albert’s behavior in the 1920 article, there also were filmed recordings that have been widely circulated over the years since the experiment was conducted, which can be judged objectively by those who view them (see, e.g., Powell et al., 2014).  

Of greatest concern is the depiction of Watson as unethical, for by implication it also indicts behaviorism. Powell et al. (2014) commented on this as follows, “Unfortunately, the Albert-as-neurologically-impaired story has been widely propagated, with psychology textbooks now starting to incorporate the story into their next editions (e.g., Kalat, 2014). Thus, even if our refutation of the impairment story becomes generally accepted, several cohorts of students are likely to be exposed to what is most likely a false rendition of the Little Albert saga. What will be the long-term effect of this on their views of behaviorism and of psychology as a whole?” It is doubly unfortunate that this myth is perpetuated in the present novel by ignoring Powell et al.’s carefully researched counter-findings to the research on which Romano-Lax bases her suggestions of Watson’s scientifically questionable behavior (Fridlund, Beck, Goldie, & Irons, 2012).

The problem with historical fiction is that the lines between historical fact and literary license become blurred. If you seek a perspective on Watson’s role in behaviorism, including the Albert-Watson-Rayner story and the Watson and Watson (1928) child rearing book, you are better served reading the historical material widely available in psychology history books and journals, including that cited herein questioning the identity of Albert, and the questioning of Watson’s ethics. A particularly informative and objective review of Watson’s views on child rearing, including those expressed in Psychological Care of the Infant and Child was written by Bigelow and Morris (2001).

If you want a light, speculative read about what might have happened between two historically important psychologists, then this novel may be worth the few hours it takes to finish it. Read it with a grain of salt, though, being aware that some of the “historical facts” probably are inaccurate and may be defaming.  

— Andy Lattal


Thanks to Hayne Reese for a helpful discussion about the controversy surrounding the identity of Little Albert. Anyone interested in learning more about John Watson’s significant role in the history of psychology might consider some of the articles in a 2013 special issue of the Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of his seminal paper that defined behaviorism, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.” All of the articles in the special issue are available at http://rmac-mx.org/category/vol-39-no-22013/. A commentary on Watson’s observations of about prediction and control of behavior is available here.


Azrin, N. H., & Foxx, R. Toilet training in less than a day.

Beck, H. P., Levinson, S., & Irons, G. (2009). "Finding Little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson's infant laboratory." American Psychologist, 64, 605–614. doi:10.1037/a0017234.

Bigelow, K. M., & Morris, E. K. (2001). John B. Watson's advice on child rearing: Some historical context. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 1, 26-30.

Catania, A. C. (2013). Learning. New York: Sloan.

Delprato, D. J., & McGlenn, F. D. (1984). Behavioral theories of anxiety disorders. In S. M. Turner (Ed.), Behavioral theories and treatment of anxiety (pp. 1- 49). New York: Plenum.

Digdon, N., Powell, R. A., & Harris, B. (2014). “Little Albert's” alleged neurological impairment: Watson, Rayner, and historical revision." History of Psychology, 17, 312– 324.

Fridlund, A. J., Beck, H. P., Goldie, W. D., & Irons, G. (2012). Little Albert: A Neurologically impaired child. History of Psychology, 15, 302-327 

Kalat, J. W. (2014). Introduction to psychology. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

Powell, R. A., Digdon, N., Russell, A. & Smithson, C. (2014). Correcting the record on Watson, Rayner, and Little Albert: Albert Barger as “Psychology’s lost boy.” American Psychologist, 69, 600-611.

Smeets, P. M., Lancioni, G. E., Ball, T. S., & Oliva, D. S. (1985). Shaping self-initiated toilet training in infants. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 18, 303-308.

Spock, B. (1946). The common sense book of baby and child care. New York: Duell, Sloan, & Pearce.

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.

Watson, J. B., & Watson, R. A. (1928). Psychological care of the infant and child. New York: W. W. Norton.  

Posted by Andy Lattal

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.