52 Classically Conditioned Emotional Response

Based on Research by John B. Watson, Ph.D.. Psychology Science Minute written by Juanita N. Baker, Ph.D.

John B. Watson, wanting to study humans by observing behaviors, wondered if neutral stimuli associated with fearful stimuli would trigger fear responses by themselves.  Extending Pavlov’s classical conditioning work in 1921 he studied Albert, an 11 month-old child. Watson first allowed Albert to play with a dog and a friendly white rat.

Watson wondered, “Would Albert become afraid of the white rat if a loud, frightening noise sounded when he was touching the rat?”  Yes. After the loud noise sounded with the rat 2 times, Albert showed reluctance to touch it. After 7 times he cried violently and crawled away when he saw the rat, even 6 months later.  Watson’s experiment suggested that classical conditioning could cause phobias in humans.

Many traumatic experiences become associated with certain sensory cues. For example, for war veterans: airplane noises, explosions, specific smells were associated with fear of death. Thus, in civilian life airplane and loud noises, firecracker explosions, or putrid smells might set off a panic response.

Remembering learned triggers, it might be helpful to say, “Oh, that’s my trigger, but I’m here now, safe! The frightening past experience is not happening again. Focus on the present, what I touch is real, now.”


Watson, J.B. & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.

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