Classical Conditioning and Anxiety

Once upon a time in the history of psychology, it was believed that human nature and personality were the complete product of events in the environment. A psychologist named John Watson bragged that he could take any child and prepare it for any profession, just by providing the appropriate set of experiences. This idea was known as tabula rasa. The mind was essentially a blank slate upon which experience could write.

To illustrate how that emotions could be linked to various stimuli, in 1920 behaviorist John Watson conducted an experiment that today would be regarded as highly unethical: A nine-month old boy nicknamed Little Albert was presented with a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey, masks, and burning newspapers in order to observe his reaction. Little Albert exhibited no fear of these objects. Little Albert was then shown the rat again, but this time, Watson stood behind Albert banging on a metal pipe with a hammer, creating an intensely aversive and very frightening noise. You can no doubt imagine the rest, but perhaps we should tell the story in Watson’s own words. In his recorded observations on the experiment, he wrote “The instant the rat was shown, the baby began to cry. Almost instantly he turned sharply to the left, fell over on his left side, raised himself to all fours and began to crawl away so rapidly that he was caught with difficulty before reaching the edge of the table.”

What do you think happened the next time Little Albert saw the rat? If you answered that he panicked, cried, and tried to escape, you’re right. That’s exactly what Little Albert did. That’s probably what anyone would do if someone started banging metal objects together behind them for no apparent reason. History records that his mother received $1 for Little Albert’s participation. Watson went on to be dismissed from the university later that same year for having an affair with his research assistant. Albert died at age 6 from acquired hydrocephalus.

What do you think happened when Little Albert saw other white objects? If you answered that he panicked, cried, and tried to escape, again you’re right. That’s exactly what Little Albert did. This is known as response generalization. Albert not only responded fearfully to white rats, he began to respond fearfully to any object with characteristics similar to a white rat, like a white fuzzy toy, or anything furry, including Watson’s Santa Claus beard and his assistant’s fur coat.

Response generalization explains how anxiety grows in breadth. When two objects or events are paired, to some extent your emotional response to one object or event rubs off on the other. This occurs through mere association, just because the two things are presented together. Assume you own a dog. Assume you take the dog for a walk every morning when you wake up, so that the dog can get some exercise and urinate. Assume further that you experience panic attacks when walking around your neighborhood. Eventually, you may dread waking up in the morning. You start each day with a panic attack. You might begin to associate dogs leashes and taking walks with anxiety. You might even start feeling uncomfortable around your own dog.

In order to recover from this generalized anxiety, you need to be deconditioned. You need to be presented with the stimulus in the absence of anxiety. In Little Albert’s case, that would mean being shown the white rat without the threatening metal sound. If that happens enough times—the white rat appears without the sound—the fear response to the white rat undergoes what is called extinction, which means that it subsides to nothing. Essentially, Albert has to learn that white rats are safe. You have to learn that your morning walk with your dog is safe. And how can you do that when you panic every time you take a walk?

Classical conditioning can be active in your life in surprising ways. Let’s say that you become anxious every time your great aunt visits. You love her, and she’s family, but she also talks nonstop, and sometimes her views are so rigid and prejudicial, you don’t even want to respond to them. By the time she leaves, you notice your anxiety has ramps up several notches. This means that anything associated with your great aunt also acquires the power to summon your anxiety. If you notice that she always visits on a Sunday, then you may start feeling anxious on a Saturday, because you know she could be coming over the very next day. Through the method of classical conditioning, your great aunt has the power to ruin your weekend.