Bertrand Russell, Little Albert and Murderous Rage

“This principle, as the reader will remember, states that, if a certain event calls out a certain response, and if another event is experienced just before it, or at the same moment, in time that other event will tend to call out the response which, originally, only the first event would call out. This applies to both muscles and to glands; it is because it applies to glands that words are capable of causing emotions. Moreover, we cannot set limits to the length of the chain of associations that may be established. If you hold an infant’s limbs, you call out a rage reaction; this appears to be an ‘unlearned reaction’. If, you and no one else, repeatedly hold an infant’s limbs, the mere sight of you will call out a rage reaction after a time. When the infant learns to talk your name may have the same effect. If, later, he learns you are an optician, he may come to hate all opticians; this may lead him to hate Spinoza because he made spectacles, and thence he may come to hate metaphysicians and Jews. For doing so he will no doubt have the most admirable reasons, which will seem to him to be his real ones; he will never suspect the process of conditioning by which he arrived at his enthusiasm for the Ku Klux Klan.” (Bertrand Russell ‘An Outline of Philosophy’ pp. 88-89)
In the above incredible passage Russell presents a toy example of how through a process of classical conditioning a child as he grows up into an adult could end up developing an irrational hatred of a particular group. On this picture a child would begin with an instinctive anger about being having his limbs held. Only one person is guilty of holding the child’s limbs, and that person is a visiting scientist. Through classical conditioning the child eventually comes to associate the scientist with being held. The mere sight of the scientist is enough to get the child to feel rage. In this respect the child is like Pavlov’s dog who salivates every time he hears a bell ring. Russell’s extrapolations are thus far consistent with known scientific data . Russell’s example is similar to the studies done by both Pavlov and Watson in classical conditioning. In Pavlov’s famous experiment the dog has an unconditioned reaction to food being presented (he salivates), and through conditioning; a bell being rung just before the food is presented, the dog salivates at the sight of the bell. The dog salivating to the bell is called a conditioned response. Russell’s toy example is similar in that the rage is an unconditioned response to being held and the conditioned response is the rage elicited at the sight of the scientist. Russell’s toy example stands up to critical scrutiny so far. Though to be more complete in his analysis, he should have discussed the fact that such conditioning processes wouldn’t necessarily continue on indefinitely, once the scientist had discontinued with the practice of holding the child’s limbs. Russell’s analysis implies that this classical conditioning will necessarily continue on to adulthood resulting in poorly understood rage. However in Pavlov’s original experiments it was noted that after a period of time where the unconditioned stimulus (the food) is presented without the conditioned stimulus (the bell), the dog ceases to salivate at the sight of the bell. Russell though is just uncritically assuming that the conditioned stimulus will continue throughout the child’s life.
The evidence for extinction occurring in classical conditioning is overwhelming. There have hundreds of studies done on extinction in behavioural science in the years since Russell wrote his ‘An Outline of Philosophy’. Russell cannot be held to account for not predicting the results of experiments which were not yet performed. Nonetheless, he is guilty of uncritically assuming that the effects of the conditioning will continue throughout the child’s life. This assumption was unjustified; even Pavlov writing years before Russell had noted the effects of extinction on conditioning.
A possible reason for Russell assuming that the effects of the conditioning would remain throughout the child’s life, were the existence of phobias. Some people spend their entire lives afraid of certain creatures because of experiences in their childhood. Russell greatly admired the work of J.B. Watson and discussed his work in ‘An Outline of Philosophy’ in great detail. Watson’s experiment with Little Albert was viewed at the time as a way of inducing a phobia in the child using classical conditioning. The child Little Albert is introduced to a white rat which he plays with for a while. Watson then makes a loud noise every time the child went to touch the rat. After a while the child is presented with the white rat and immediately becomes upset at the sight of the white rat despite no loud noise being made. It is then shown that the child generalises his fear of the rat to other furry creatures such as dogs, teddy bears etc. Russell may have extrapolated from the demonstrative fact that some people have irrational phobias in adulthood, and Watson inducing a phobia in a child through classical conditioning to the conclusion that adult phobias are the result of unintended classical conditioning of children in childhood. Such a conclusion obviously doesn’t follow from facts Watson presented. There wasn’t any evidence that Watson’s classical conditioning would last into adulthood.
If Russell had asserted that it was possible that adult phobias were the result of classical conditioning then his assertion would have been a reasonable hypothesis worth trying to test. However, Russell instead just assumed that classical conditioning in childhood would last into adulthood. It is possible that Psychoanalysis, which when Russell was writing his ‘Outline of Philosophy’ was world famous, implicitly influenced Russell’s thinking. Freud claimed to have demonstrated that childhood trauma can unconsciously influence adult behaviour and thought processes. Freud had justified his claim with his clinical work with patients who he claimed he cured by bringing their unconscious traumas to consciousness. Freud even argued that a lot of our explanations of our behaviour could be shown to be merely rationalizations that do not correspond with the real causes of our behaviour. As we saw above Russell made a similar point to Freud about the adult giving a rationalization to explain his racist views.
Given the esteem that Freud’s views on the importance of childhood experiences in determining adult behaviour, was held in when Russell wrote his ‘An Outline of Philosophy’, it is highly probable that Russell was influenced by Freud’s views. This would make sense of Russell’s uncritical assumption that classical conditioning of rage to a particular person would last into childhood. Russell may have reasoned as follows: (1) We know from Freud’s clinical work that trauma from childhood can last into adulthood, (2) Watson induced a phobia into Little Albert using classical conditioning, (3) Given Freud’s discoveries it is reasonable to assume that the classical conditioning used by Watson could last into adulthood, (4) Watson’s experiments are an excellent tool to explain adults with irrational phobias, this is indirect evidence that the conditioning lasts into adulthood. Obviously, if this was Russell’s reasoning process then it was non-demonstrative. Nonetheless it could be considered a reasonable inference to the best explanation. Russell’s imagined reasoning process would have been reasonable at the time. But since then the amply demonstrated notion of extinction in classical conditioning and the many methodological flaws with Freud’s psychoanalysis casts serious doubt as to whether the classical conditioning Russell is appealing to would actually continue to affect the adult’s behaviour. On the other hand, the existence of spontaneous recovery of conditioned responses after they have undergone extinction could be used as a point in Russell’s favour.
For the sake of argument we will assume that Russell’s view that the classical conditioning will continue to affect the child into adulthood is correct. And move on to the next step in the above passage by Russell. He goes on to note that this form of conditioning can be extended indefinitely. Thus when the child learns to associate a name (e.g. ‘J.B Watson’) with the person who held him, the name will then elicit the same feeling of rage. Russell’s extrapolation that the name will have the same effect as the person does is again probably based on Watson’s experiment with Little Albert.
In Watson’s experiment he purported to have shown that Little Albert generalized his fear of rats to other furry animals. Russell seemed to be thinking about Albert’s purported generalization to other furry animals as a reason to assume that the child in his above example will follow a similar process. Thus the child will unconsciously move from feeling rage at the adult being present, to feeling rage when he speaks or hears the adult’s name. Russell speculates that if the child learns that the scientist who abused him was also an optician; he could hate all opticians. This could lead to him hating Spinoza who was an optician and because Spinoza was a metaphysician and a Jew, the child could generalize to a hatred of all Jews and Metaphysicians.
The process that Russell is invoking is commonly referred to as ‘stimulus generalization’ and has been well studied and shown to have effects in both classical conditioning and operant conditioning. While people have made some legitimate methodological criticisms (and ethical criticisms) of Watson’s Little Albert Experiment, there have been hundreds of better constructed experiments verifying the effect in the last ninety years. So to a degree one could argue that Russell’s toy example invoking generalization is corroborated to some degree by experimental data.
Russell’s image is of a child as a result of classical conditioning and stimulus generalization developing strange aversions which as an adult are rationalized; while the real cause is something much different. One of the problems with this emphasis is that one is at a loss to explicate precisely what features will be generalized, and why. In Watson’s Little Albert experiment the child generalized to ‘small furry things’, while in Russell’s toy example the child over a period of years generalized from the person, to the name, to a description of the person An Optician, to all Opticians, to contingent features of particular opticians.
There seems to be no reason why a person would generalize in a particular way as opposed to another way. On Russell’s view the child is implicitly using the propositional function ‘x makes me angry’ and ‘x is the scientist’. However the when the child learns that the scientist is an optician he makes the further illicit inference: x makes me angry, x is an optician therefore opticians make me angry. But there are countless different facts about the scientist that are discoverable by child. The experimentalist is a scientist, he is an optician, he is a man, he could be short, fat, thin, hunchbacked or could have any other number of features. There seems to be no reason that the child would unconsciously generalize in one way or another on Russell’s account. So while Russell’s hypothesis has some good scientific data underlying it, he hasn’t presented a model that can predict in detail they way a person will generalize unconsciously. Nonetheless he has presented a useful explanatory model that can be used to explain people holding odd beliefs that they give unconvincing reasons for why they hold them.
Interestingly the principle of generalization was proposed by psychoanalyst Matte Blanco as one of the key features of unconscious thinking. Blanco used Russell and Whitehead’s Principia-Mathematica to formalise Freud’s theory of the unconscious. One difficulty with Blanco’s work is that he didn’t have a compelling causal account of the principle of generalization and his approach at times had a Cartesian disembodied feel. Watson’s work on classical conditioning and stimulus generalization would have been a useful tool to help give a naturalistic account of the purported structure of the unconscious mind.
It is interesting to note that Russell read a paper by Blanco where the principle of generalization is discussed in detail. Russell sent Blanco a note to say that he admired Blanco’s work. It is tantalizing to speculate whether Russell put together his own use of stimulus generalization expressed in his ‘An Outline of Philosophy’ with Blanco’s similar principle. Unfortunately there isn’t a record of Russell’s thoughts on Blanco’s ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’.
As noted above there are plenty of criticisms of the methodology used by psychoanalysts. So people may not be overly impressed that some aspects of psychoanalysis seem to be in agreement with Russell’s hypothesis. It is worth noting though that Relation Frame Theory and its clinical off shoot Acceptance and Commitment Therapy also makes use of implicit generalizations to explain the behaviour of people with various kinds of behavioural problems.
Neither Blanco’s work or work in Relation Frame Theory are yet predictive of what type of generalizations a person will generate in a given instance. They are rather retrospective theories that can be used to explain the verbal behaviour of the patients that they deal with. Nonetheless I think it is fair to say that at present Russell’s speculation while not proven correct; is given what contemporary data tell us, a reasonable hypothesis.

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