What is Fear Conditioning?

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  • Written By: Christina Edwards
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2019
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Fear conditioning is a type of classical conditioning in which people and animals learn to fear certain objects or situations. It is based on the simple concept that if an organism is presented with a harmless stimulus at the same time as a negative one, he will learn to fear the harmless stimulus by itself. Scientists have studied this type of conditioning on both animals and humans over the years, though the most well remembered is probably an experiment conducted at John Hopkins University in 1920.

A psychologist, John B. Watson, along with his assistant-turned-wife, Rosalie Rayner, conducted a controversial experiment on fear conditioning that has become known as the Little Albert experiment. Albert B. was a nine-month-old infant when Watson began this research. The boy was first presented with a white lab rat, and he seemed to show curiosity and even pleasure at the mere sight of it. As he reached out to touch it, however, a steel bar was hit with a hammer behind him, producing a loud noise. This loud noise was created repeatedly every time Albert tried to reach for the rat.


Producing the negative stimulus along with the rat made Little Albert afraid of white rats. It also seemed to make him fear similar objects, such as a white rabbit, a fur coat, a dog, and a Santa Claus mask. Sitting in the exact same room, without the negative stimulus, the boy did not seem to fear dissimilar objects. He continued to play with and enjoy blocks. This fear conditioning experiment, although seemingly cruel, helped researchers see just how fear conditioning worked.

First, an organism is presented with a harmless stimulus, in this case a white lab rat. Next, this harmless item is paired with a negative stimulus, in this case a loud noise. By repeatedly pairing these two stimuli together, the organism associated the harmless object with something frightening. This results in the organism feeling a certain amount of fear whenever he even sees the harmless object.

This can possibly explain why some people are afraid of seemingly harmless things. A person who is afraid of dogs is a good example. There is often a good chance of that person having been bitten or attacked by a dog when he was younger. As a result, he was conditioned to fear them, even into adulthood.

Fear extinction is one possible way to reduce the effects of fear conditioning. This type of extinction suggests that an organism will no longer be afraid of a certain object after he experiences it and nothing bad happens. For example, a person who is afraid of dogs will be shown a dog, and his fears will not be reinforced, meaning that the dog will be not be aggressive, but friendly. The more times he is exposed to a friendly dog, his fear of dogs in general will lessen.


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Post 4

Is it possible to stop fear conditioning?

First of all, conditioning is caused by memory: "There is often a good chance of that person having been bitten or attacked by a dog when he was younger."

Memory creates fear. Memory is the recollection of past experiences. Experience is knowledge. Therefore, knowledge is the cause of fear. In the case of fear, my old experiences are acting in the present, modifying itself.

@Mor: "Abuse victims will stay with their abuser because they have been conditioned to believe that they cannot prevent the abuse."

Maybe the victim cannot prevent the abuse, and so does not believe it can be stopped. In this case, fear has his value. For example, when you see

a dangerous animal, there is the natural response of fear and you ran away. We are not talking about this kind of fear, but the psychological fear. Psychological fear is not a reality, but only the creation of memory. If you see a dog who has had attention and care, you will know if he is angry or not. But this state of attention is not possible when memory comes into action. When memory interferes in action, which is the movement of thought, fear arises.
Post 3

@Mor - That kind of research can be done in other ways though. I know that there have been some recent breakthroughs on fear conditioning in soldiers for example. They realized that a lot of the learning and memory of fear comes from the body's reaction to it, such as a raised heart-beat and that post-traumatic-stress-disorder happens when someone encounters a trigger that makes the body think it is experiencing the same conditions as before.

So, if you give someone beta-blockers right after or during a trauma, you can stop the body from overreacting and creating that physical association.

I'm pretty sure they didn't have to traumatize any toddlers in order to figure that out.

Post 2

@KoiwiGal - It might be possible that the kid grew out of his fear. I mean, a lot of people do eventually overcome their phobias. And a lot of research has gone into getting rid of fear conditioning as well as creating it. If they didn't do this kind of research we wouldn't understand that sometimes abuse victims will stay with their abuser because they have been conditioned to believe that they cannot prevent the abuse.

We may never completely understand learning in the brain, but attempting to research it (as ethically as possible) is helping all of humankind.

Post 1

That experiment would most definitely not be allowed today, but I guess it wouldn't be allowed because we know what would happen. That poor kid was probably terrified of rats for the rest of his life and never knew why. Research of the brain was pretty awful back in the days when they didn't care so much about the long term effects on the experimental subjects.

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