chapter  3
26 Pages

Associative Learning and Phobias


Associative learning offers one of the earliest explanations of how phobic reactions to stimuli might be acquired. Conditioning as a model for phobia ®rst arose from a famous demonstration by Watson and Rayner (1920) involving a white rat, a hammer, an iron bar, and a small child. The authors wanted to demonstrate that aversive and avoidant responses could be acquired to a previously neutral stimulus. In their study, a 9-month-old child, Albert B (or little Albert), was tested to see whether he was fearful of various stimuli (including a white rat and the noise made by banging a claw hammer on an iron bar). Watson and Rayner established that Albert was not initially fearful of the rat, but was scared by the noise. Albert was then placed in a room with the rat. Every time he touched the rat, or the rat approached him, an experimenter hit the iron bar with the hammer. After several trials in which the rat was paired with the loud noise, Albert started to display signs of anxiety when the rat was presented alone (i.e., without the noise). The authors did not propose a theory of phobia acquisition on the basis of their ®ndings. However, the implication from this study was that experiencing a neutral stimulus in temporal proximity to some fearinducing or traumatic event could create an excessive, persistent fear (i.e., a phobia) to that stimulus.