Little Slothrop

Early in the novel there is an episode where Pointsman and Pudding are discussing ethics of the experiment on Slothrop. In this episode it is revealed that as an infant Slothrop was subject to a conditioning experiment conducted by Dr. Laszlo Jamf. Among obscure details about Jamf’s experiment Pynchon makes a reference to behaviorists Watson and Rayner’s conditioning project of “Little Albert,” which inspired Jamf to create his own study on our hero of the novel, Slothrop.

During the 1920’s John B. Watson was one of the founding fathers of the new movements on the rise in psychology: behaviorism. This radical branch of psychology strongly opposed the Freudian psychoanalytic psychology theories which were popular at this time. Instead of crediting behavior to unconscious processes or repressed sexual instincts, Watson wanted to promote the idea that all human behavior is learned or conditioned from environment. Through his “Little Albert” experiment Watson sought out to prove this, focusing on emotional response (specifically fear). According to Forty Studies That Changed Psychology, “Little Albert” was a 9 month year old orphan raised by the hospital who became the subject of the experiment. Watson’s goal was to condition the baby to fear a white rat. Initially, Albert expressed no fear to the various stimuli presented to him including a rat, a rabbit, a dog, and white cotton wool. These elements were “neutral stimuli” meaning that they did not evoke a response from the child. When the neutral stimuli was presented to Albert it was accompanied by a loud banging sound from hitting a beam behind him (the unconditioned stimulus), which startled and scared the baby (unconditioned response). This process was repeated several times until finally when the rat was presented without the noise, Albert responded fearfully to it, associating the scary noise to the rat (conditioned response). Thus, what was the neutral stimulus became a conditioned stimulus as it evoked a new learned fear from the subject. The results also showed that Albert’s fear could expand to other stimuli which were similar to the white rat (this process is known as generalization). When presented with other stimuli such as the rabbit, dog, or cotton wool, Albert responded with the same terror as he did with the rat. Additionally, Albert’s fearful response persisted even after a period of time when the test was temporarily paused.

(By the way if anyone is particularly interested below is a link of Watson’s procedure, reactions, and observations of the experiment. I found it comical to read the end of it because Watson makes a few comments mocking how psychoanalysts would conduct this experiment.)

Among the many ethical controversies that surround this experiment, one of the main criticisms of the experiment was that Albert was never “reconditioned,” to get rid of his fear of the stimuli used in the experiment. Evidently, he was adopted and taken away from the hospital before the researchers could perform the reconditioning. Since the experiment concluded that fear remains indefinitely that would mean that Albert’s learned fears would remain with him throughout his life. This was one of the bigger arguments against the experiment with regards to its ethics. As I was browsing through the internet I found that many people wanted to know about the fate Albert. In recent years there was actually an investigation to find Albert, and in 2009 an article was published by Hall P. Beck arguing “Little Albert” was a boy named Douglas Merrite. He was the son of one of the wet nurses who worked in the same hospital where the experiment took place. He also died at the age of six in 1925 due to a neurological condition called hydrocephalus. That the child was suffering from this serious condition reveals that as an infant he may have also had severe neurological problems even though Watson claimed his subject to be perfectly healthy and normal. Thus if Douglas was cognitively impaired then Watson’s results may not have been an accurate representation of human behavior. Additionally, if Watson knew of his subject’s health state and used the child’s behavior to produce the results he wanted then this would make his experiment fraudulent.

In Gravity’s Rainbow that both Jamf and later Pointsman are modeling an experiment surrounded by such controversial and ethical issues reflect their own corruptness. Maybe Pynchon was trying to draw parallels between Watson and Jamf’s experiments, providing clarification of what Jamf is doing with his experiment. Like Watson, Jamf was testing behavioral conditioning and using questionable and unethical means of exploiting an infant to reach his conclusions.

Now since both of the experiments are very similar it leads me to a certain paragraph in this episode which I thought may imply that after the experiment, Slothrop maintained his conditioned behavior just as Albert maintained his. The quote I’m referring to is: “Now ordinarily, according to tradition in these matters, the little sucker would have been de-conditioned. Jamf would have, in Pavlovian terms, “extinguished” the hardon reflex he’d built up, before he let the baby go. Most likely he did” (86). So according to tradition Jamf would have extinguished the baby’s conditioned response (this process is known as extinction, where the relationship between the conditioned stimulus and conditioned response is eliminated), but if he is modeling after Watson’s experiment, (who did not de-condition his subject), then perhaps Jamf didn’t fully de-condition Slothrop either, which is why he experiences his erections frequently. There isn’t a concrete confirmation that Slothrop was de-conditioned; it only “most likely” happened. Even if Slothrop was de-conditioned, perhaps his conditioned behavior did not reach complete extinction, in which “there can still be a silent extinction beyond the zero” (86). The words in italics actually refer to Pavlov’s term for spontaneous recovery, in which the conditioned response can randomly resurface even after it had been supposedly been “extinguished.”

There are multiple reasons for spontaneous recovery to occur whether it is activated by cues or a reunion with the stimulus which caused the response. I wish I had more time to further explore the term “spontaneous recovery” because I think it would further explain how and why Slothrop maintained his conditioned response (his frequent erections) which the “White Visitation” is so concerned about. So if anyone is more familiar with the subject feel free to talk about it.

Works Cited

Bartlett, Tom. “A New Twist in the Sad Saga of Little Albert.” Percolator A New Twist in the Sad Saga of Little Albert Comments. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 Jan. 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. <;.

Hock, Roger R. Forty Studies That Changed Psychology: Explorations into the History of Psychological Research. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 1999. Print.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. N.p.: Penguin Group, 1995. Print.

Watson, John B. Behaviorism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1930. Print.

Weisenburger, Steven. A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel. Athens: University of Georgia, 2006. Print.

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3 Responses to Little Slothrop

  1. Kayla Rafkin says:

    This is a very interesting and controversial topic. I actually just learned about the “Little Albert” experiment in my psychology recently, and I read that the conditioning that created this fear in Albert went beyond what was originally intended. Somehow Albert ended up being terrified of anything that was white or fluffy (like the cotton wool and and the rabbit).

  2. jcm93pitt says:

    Follow this link to a Youtube video about Little Albert. It’s sort of neat to see Albert’s visual repulsion to anything soft and fuzzy, created by Watson’s conditioning. As far as spontaneous recovery is concerned, at about 4 minutes in, it shows Albert coming back to the lab after several months and still reacting in the same way.

    I would be curious to see a similar study done on an adult. Obviously structurally the study would have to be different in that adults would not be hindered away from a soft rabbit strictly by a loud noise, but I’d just be interested in seeing if the results were similar.
    Does anyone know of a study like this using adults?

    Also, don’t watch the end credits because the song they have playing in the background is super annoying. Just a heads up.

  3. elizabeth829 says:

    I learned about Little Albert last semester in psychology. I never learned however about his condition and subsequent death, so that’s pretty interesting and I wonder if it really did have an effect on the experiment. I think spontaneous recovery can happen after a long period of time as soon as the stimulus reappears suddenly. For example, the common anecdote about being hypnotized by the sound of a bell to quack like a duck and then hearing the bell years later and acting like a duck, not exactly the same but, you get the point. If this is the case, I wonder if Slothrop had a period of time where he wasn’t so sexually promiscuous or if he was just never de-conditioned at all and never actually had one exact “moment” of spontaneous recovery.

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