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.