Child Experiments, A Syllabus

Child Experiments, A Syllabus

by Hannah Zeavin

The history of child development, childcare, and psychological experimentation on children sit uncomfortably close to one another. In the long 20th century, psychologists, in order to isolate characteristics of child development and to produce norms and pathologies of childhood, turn to vulnerable children. Their most likely subjects are those they have brutal access to, those caught in the dragnets of total institutions, whether in the foster care system, incarcerated, orphaned, or hospitalized. Child psychologists have often rearranged the care of children to ostensibly glean something of their development, turning these spaces into momentary laboratories. This experimental impulse was also turned inwards: children experimental psychologists sometimes used their nearest and dearest as subjects. Psychological experimentation—both systematic in the clinic and lab as well as more covert in the home—continues today, even as ethics and standards have evolved.

Recently, seemingly no matter what facet of my scholarship or writing I pick up, I find a child experiment is somehow central. From Freud’s theories developed on the grounds of his own children to behaviorists modifying their homes, midcentury research on autism, or the first Waldorf schools, I’ve returned again and again to the archives of psychological child experimentation in elaborating critical histories of the human sciences.

This is to say nothing of other, idealistic if not revolutionary kinds of experimentation with children that also took place in the 1900s: towards child and youth liberation, experimentation with new care arrangements held collectively, and everyday experimentation in what it is to be and live with children. But that hopeful syllabus is for another time. For now, here are five canonical child experiments.

1. Daniel Paul Schreber

A diagram by Moritz Schreber depicting a boy using his body as a bridge between to chairs.

Daniel Paul Schreber, a lawyer who went mad, is one of the most famous and painful cases in the history of psychoanalytic psychology. But long before he wrote up his own story as Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, Schreber had been a psychological test subject. Schreber was born in Leipzig on July 25, 1842. His father, Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber, is, in a way, still a household name in Germany. Papa Schreber was a mid-19th century physician and pedagogue, preoccupied with the social change urbanization brought (and wrought, for Moritz Schreber was anti-modernity). At the very beginning of the industrial revolution, Schreber was certain that these changes impacted children. His recommendations, at first blush, may seem banal: he advocated countryside exercise and playgrounds in nature. But Schreber, both in his extensive writing on childhood and in his own home, was invested in instilling an unconditional obedience that he, well, conditioned, through freezing baths, chin clamps that held children in strict postures, and withholding love and affection. Moritz Schreber tested both these approaches on his child, and sold parenting manuals that continued to be printed in Germany until the 1950s, a hundred years on. Some have even argued that Schreber’s parenting style directly prepared generations for Nazification. 

Suggested Readings: 
Daniel Paul Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness
Eric Santner, My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber’s Secret History of Modernity

2. “Little Albert”

A photo of Little Albert crawling, watched by an adult, with the caption "Now he fears even Santa Claus"

Swaddled in white, the little baby sits on a thin mattress between John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner. The baby, given the pseudonym “Little Albert,” was just nine months old and although controversy remains over his identity, it is almost certain he was the son of a wetnurse employed at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “Little Albert” was selected to be conditioned to fear: rats, white fluffy things, and even Santa Claus. Watson was just becoming a household name the same year, having just published Psychological Care of the Infant, which would go on to be the dominant childrearing book until Dr. Spock published his 1946 Baby and Child Care. 

This 1928 study had two purposes. One, to supply evidence for Watson’s idea that three emotions—love, fear, and anger—are in-born and can be stimulated. And secondly, that those innate emotions and their stimulus could be transferred, or in Watson’s parlance, conditioned. “Little Albert” was not afraid of many things on the first day Watson and Rayner observed him, not of rats or rabbits, but he was afraid of loud noises. Watson and Rayner then tried to transfer his fear of noise to those objects he wasn’t previously afraid of. Watson and Rayner met with Little Albert for months, sequentially trying to condition his fear response. Watson claimed they had successfully conditioned these fears, even as the results couldn’t be replicated by their peers.  

Suggested Readings:
Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1928). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.
Samelson, F. (1980). J. B. Watson’s Little Albert, Cyril Burt’s twins, and the need for a critical science. American Psychologist, 35, 619–625.

3. The Bobo Doll

A series of 12 stills depicting adults, and then children roughly playing with the Bobo Doll.

“Sock him,” “Hit him down,” “Kick him,” “Throw him in the air,” “Pow.” In 1961, a group of 72 preschoolers enrolled in Stanford University’s nursery school were set before arts and crafts and made to witness adults playing with a “Bobo Doll,” a roly-poly blow up toy that teeters and totters about. Albert Bandura had set out to test his “social learning” theory—in which he hypothesized that children learned through mimesis. To test the theory, Bandura used adults as models, who either played nicely near the Bobo Doll, or witnessed the violent scene of adults hitting the Bobo Doll with a mallet. After ten minutes, the children, irrespective of what scene they saw, were moved into another playing room and frustrated—their toys were taken away. Now, primed for aggression, they were returned to the first room and allowed to play freely, observed beyond their perception, through a one-way mirror. The result: the children that witnessed the aggressive scene mimicked it, hitting the Bobo Doll and were more likely to mimic if they were boys. The experiment was repeated just two years later, but now the model the children saw was filmic. No matter what model—real or representational—children mimicked the aggression they saw. And thus, a nursery school classroom was turned into evidence for a new social panic that would crest in the 1980s and 1990s: the notion that media can make even the sweetest child violent. 

Suggested Readings: 
Janet Malcolm, “One-Way Mirror”
Andrew Bandura, (1961). “Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology63 (3): 575–582. 

4. The Visual Cliff

A mother beckons a baby towards her, who crawls to the edge of a checkered pattern, facing an expanse of transparent glass.

Placed on the far side of a checkered platform, a baby is asked to crawl to its mother as she spins a pinwheel. To get to her, the baby needs to cross “the visual cliff,” or a piece of prepared glass. Under the glass side was another checkered platform on an axis, giving the appearance of a deep and shallow side. Tested on 36 crawling infants, only three attempted to cross the threshold to mother, even when she patted the platform to show that there was a secure platform present rather than freefall. Many cried, wanting to go, but unable to contemplate the fall. The experiment, titled the Visual Cliff, was set up at the Cornell Behavioral Farm to test if experience or innate perception prevents babies—and eventually baby animals—from crossing. 

Suggested Reading: 
Eleanor Gibson. (1960). The “visual cliff”Scientific American, 202(4), 64-71.
Erica Robles Anderson and Scott Ferguson, “The Visual Cliff: Eleanor Gibson & The Origins of Affordance

5. The Strange Situation

An image from video taken from the Strange Situation experiment, an adult and a baby sit on the floor in a room, with a caption that reads "The mother leaves the room."

Attachment theory is a misnomer. It is a theory of deprivation. Across its longer history, the theory has fluctuated as to whether it theorizes mother and child apart, mother and child together, or a kind of psychic distance that crosses both togetherness and separation. In brief, based on nearly a century of infant-mother observation substantiating the impacts of mother-infant separation and, later, to distinguish types of attachment, attachment theory is connected to the longstanding tradition of mothers, and then psychologists and pediatricians, watching children—in their homes, through a mirror, or, later, on video tape, they respond to stimulus or its dearth. In 1969, Mary Ainsworth coded the infant’s attachment style in relation to a maternal stimulus. To do so, Ainsworth used videotape for her Strange Situation Classification. The Strange Situation is an eight-part test in which a 9-to-18-month-old child, mother, and stranger are brought together and separated in a series of entries and exits to an observable room:

(1) Mother, baby, and experimenter (lasts less than one minute).
(2) Mother and baby alone (three minutes).
(3) A stranger joins the mother and infant (three minutes).
(4) Mother leaves baby and stranger alone (three minutes).
(5) Mother returns and stranger leaves (three minutes).
(6) Mother leaves; infant left completely alone (three minutes).
(7) Stranger returns (three minutes).
(8) Mother returns and stranger leaves (three minutes).

The entire undertaking or test is filmed (and the test continues to be given, see below). Of primary interest to attachment researchers is what happens during the two maternal returns. Children are then scored on a scale of 1-7 on four criteria:

1. Proximity and contact seeking
2. Contact maintaining
3. Avoidance of proximity and contact
4. Resistance to contact and comforting

These scores are predicated on micro-observations, conducted every fifteen seconds throughout the duration of the test. Then, a result is calculated, leading to a diagnosis of one of four patterns of attachment: Secure, anxious-avoidant (insecure), and anxious-ambivalent/resistant (insecure). Eventually, a fourth category was added, to account for children who often presented as secure, but were distinguished based on uncoordinated movement: disorganized/disoriented. 

Suggested Readings: 
Marga Vicedo, The Nature and Nurture of Love
Danielle Carr, “Don’t be So Attached to Attachment Theory.