Making Babies Scared of Bunnies: The Roots of Fear in Advertising


The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series.

“Fear is as primal a factor as love in influencing personality,” wrote psychologists John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner in 1920. “Fear does not gather its potency in any derived manner from love. It belongs to the original and inherited nature of man.”  

The names of Watson and Rayner may have fallen into obscurity, but Professor Watson’s influence has been profound. He founded the school of psychology known as Behaviorism, which focused on observable expressed behaviors instead of introspective conditions of the mind, and he argued that human behavior was susceptible to training, as with any other mammal. Watson and Rayner’s experiments with manipulating the fear responses of a baby boy remain one of the most infamous examples of unethical practices with human subjects. Watson and his graduate student, Rayner, attempted to make a baby known as “Albert B” afraid of cute fuzzy animals. The experiment succeeded.    

Watson and Rayner started with the premise that fear was innate. The experiment explored three primary questions: 1) Could fear toward certain objects be taught? 2) Would the child learn to fear associated objects on his own? 3) Once fear had been established, would it remain? In other words, can we control the shape and direction of fear by manipulating the subject’s environment, thereby creating a series of phobic associations in the mind?

Watson would use a technique based on Nobel Prize-winner Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiments with dogs, who had been trained to salivate at the sound of a buzzer. Using these same principles of association, Watson and Rayner attempted to “condition” Albert to be afraid of white rats and rabbits by pairing the sight of them with a loud clanging noise.

The testing on little Albert started when he was nine months old. Why did his mother allow the testing? Nobody knows. Watson described her as “a wet nurse at the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children.” However, there were no wet nurses at Harriet Lane, and Watson was known to be sloppy about those sorts of details. Speculating about the mother’s motivation leads nowhere, since we don’t know with certainty who she was. That sort of guessing also belongs to one of the schools of psychology that Watson opposed. Because Watson burned the notes associated with the experiment, the identity of baby and mother have long been an academic mystery.

What we do know, based on a scholarly paper Watson and Rayner published in 1920, is that Albert was likely chosen because he was an “unusually phlegmatic” baby, so calm and even-tempered that when he was suddenly confronted with a “white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, with masks with and without hair, cotton wool [and] burning newspapers,” he showed no signs of fear. By the time the experiment was finished, baby Albert “burst into tears” at the sight of them, even after 11 months had passed. He was never deconditioned, because finding out whether these artificially induced fears would last beyond infancy was part of the experiment.

All of this is interesting on its own, but what makes the story particularly fascinating is the twist: In 1920, Watson was fired from his prestigious academic post at Johns Hopkins University. Ostensibly, it wasn’t due to the now-glaring ethical lapses in the Albert B. experiment. As psychiatrist Jean Kim noted in an email to me, research institutions and hospitals now have review boards that “examine adherence to informed consent and ethics before approval,” but these standards are anachronistically applied to research conducted in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Instead, the married professor was fired over his scandalous affair with Rayner. His next job? Advertising.

Starting at a low level, Watson quickly rose to become vice-president of J. Walter Thompson, the great rival of the fictional advertising firm of Sterling Cooper on Mad Men. Once in place at this New York firm, still one of the biggest names in advertising, Watson’s behaviorist theories could be put in place.

His doctrine,” wrote historian Peggy J. Kreshel, “which recognized prediction and control as the goal of psychology, meshed well not only with broader Progressive concerns of social control, but more particularly with the goals of the business community.” Watson is broadly credited with putting “science” into advertising, but he is more specifically the father of “psychological advertising.” Watson concluded that logic failed to convince consumers to buy the advertised product because humans are irrational. Using scientific methods, he also determined that consumers couldn’t tell one product apart from another. So, he decided to “sell the image.” As far as he was concerned, the most effective way to do this was by inducing fear:

"Watson told advertisers to stir up the consumer’s emotions: "tell him something that will tie him up with fear, something that will stir up a mild rage, that will call out an affectionate or love response, or strike at a deep psychological or habit need."

By dint of the same mechanism of association that made Albert fearful of white fluffy animals and objects (including Santa Claus), one of Watson’s most successful ad campaigns convinced women that Pebeco toothpaste made them sexy. On the face of it, neither association —white fur with “threat,” toothpaste with “allure”—stands to reason. Which is precisely the point.

But Watson’s work also showed that that the cycle of fear can be broken. In a lesser-known study of a boy named Peter, he completed a process now known as “desensitization.” A nervous child, Peter was Albert’s temperamental opposite. Peter started out afraid of white rats and rabbits, and lost his fear of them following repeated exposures paired with pleasurable rewards given to him. Because Peter’s fear of cute mammals stands apart from the sociocultural norm, it points to one of the lingering questions raised by Watson’s work: Are humans innately predisposed to like some animals and fear others, such as spiders? The answer seems to be yes and no. It’s a combination of atavistic instincts combined with modeling behaviors: an adult screams, so the baby screams, and the baby learns to be afraid of spiders. Loud sound and negative reaction equals fear.

Hence, the way to fight irrational fear is through exposure coupled with the refusal to reward panic based on childish ignorance. “Fear is borne on the power of doubt,” science historian Rob Boddice wrote in an email to me. “Objects of fear fill the spaces where knowledge and certainty are absent. Since knowledge is hard to come by and even harder to disseminate, fear spreads like a virus, attaching to hearsay and heresy, until knowledge finally, reassuringly penetrates. But just as uncertainties are temporary, knowledge is historical, subject to revision and revolution. Thus, the objects of fear change over time.”

One day, it’s white rats and rabbits. The next, it’s terrorists and Ebola. These are scary things, to be sure, yet if fear is an understandable response to vague and unfamiliar threats, to be ruled by that fear is to remain at the level of an animal. For Watson, those fearful/angry/lustful instincts were the reason Behaviorism worked in the first place. As far as he was concerned, humans were animals (and by that, no insult was intended), and that likeness required him to observe men with the same dispassionate eye as "an ox you slaughter," and just as easily transformed into a docile and profitable body. 

In early-20th-century America, the susceptibility of humans to react like any other mammal to behavioral conditioning was as controversial as Darwinian evolution and for the same reason—the affront to human ego. But in the new 1930 introduction to Behaviorism, Watson was able to point out that behaviorist theory had already profoundly influenced various spheres of thought in just a few short years, quietly disseminating into business and design as the objections dribbled away. 

Almost a century has passed since Watson turned a hapless infant into a cringing wreck, fearful of bunnies, beards and Santa Claus. In the meantime, his psychological principles for achieving advertising success have arguably turned all denizens of consumer culture into baby Albert, manipulated by sounds and images into making associations that trigger three primal emotions: love, rage and fear. The applications have merely become more overt, with the designs of casinos and supermarkets carefully calibrated to create compulsions for items we don't need. It’s become a popular truism that American culture treats consumers like lab rats on a wheel, dangling sex, food, revenge and rewards just out of reach, to be forever chased. Turns out that feeling of running for your life while being stuck in one place is more accurate than anyone knew.

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