Conditioned Fear Response: How to extinguish it?
John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner carried one of the most significant psychology studies out in 1920. The reason it is such a landmark study is because Watson was able to show that emotional responses could be conditioned, or learned. Preceding Watson, Freud and James believed in instinctual systems. Freud thought there were two types of instincts, sexual and life- preservation. James, however, claimed there were many more innate instincts. Conversely, Watson stressed the importance of environmental factors on behavior.
Pavlov introduced experiments showing classical conditioning of responses in dog. Pavlov and Watson’s behavioral work lead to B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning experiments ten years later. The implications of this research (Little Albert) over the years have been outstanding. Albert B. was born to a woman who was a wet nurse in the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children. Although raised in the hospital environment, Albert developed normally and was very stable. When he was about eight months old, Watson wanted to determine if a loud sound would cause a fear response in the child.
He was placed in a room and an experimenter stood behind him and made a loud noise by striking a hammer on a steel bar. The first time this was done, Albert startled and raised his hands up. The second time, he began to tremble, and on the third time he was crying and having a fit. Around nine of months of age, Albert was run through some tests. He was introduced abruptly to a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, with masks with and without hair, cotton wool, burning newspapers, and other things. At no time did he show any signs of fear or rage.
Watson then set out to establish a conditioned emotional response in Albert. At the age of 11 months, Albert began the procedure. He was first presented with a white rat. When he reached out to touch it, the bar was struck. The child fell forward, but did not cry. He reached for the animal again, and the noise was made a second time. This time little Albert cried. One week later, he was presented with the rat again. This time he did not reach for it immediately. Instead, the rat was placed closer to him. Then he slowly reached for it, but snatched his hand away before making contact with it.
The final time the rat was presented, Albert cried at the sight of the rat alone. Watson had indeed conditioned a fear response in him. One month later, he was exposed to the Santa Claus mask, the fur coat and then the furry animals. He withdrew from all of them and cried when forced to touch it. Then he cried at the sight of it. Unfortunately, further studies on “undoing” Albert’s conditioned fear response did not take place. He was never brought back to the hospital after the previously mentioned session. Extinguish the Conditioned Fear.
One path could be to habituate Albert to the animals until the fear response extinguished by constantly confronting the child with those stimuli which produced the responses, in the hope that habituation would occur. Another possible solution is to “recondition” Albert’s responses. This could be done through pairing the animal with candy or constructive activities. Then, try to recondition by showing objects producing fear responses (visual) while simultaneously stimulating the erogenous zones (tactual), first the lips, then the nipples, and, as a last resort, the sexual organs.
Finally, by feeding him candy or other food just as the animal is shown. Or, building up “constructive” activities around the object by imitation and putting the hand through the motions of manipulation. If Little Albert’s fear response behaved just like Pavlov’s dogs’ salivation response, we would expect that Little Albert’s fear of rats and other furry objects would extinguish when they were no longer paired with the loud noise. However, Watson and Rayner indicated that Little Albert left the hospital before they had a chance to see whether they could de-condition his response to furry objects.
Thus, we know from subsequent studies that, unlike other conditioned responses, fear responses do not tend to extinguish. The main reason for this is that once people become afraid of something, they tend to avoid it. When they avoid it, there is no opportunity to find out that the thing they are afraid of is not accompanied by the horrible consequence they fear. Because people avoid exposure to things they fear, extinction does not take place, and conditioned fears may persist for a lifetime.
Works cited. Watson, J. B. and Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1, pp. 1-14.