Classical conditioning (also Pavlovian conditioning, respondent conditioning or alpha-conditioning) is a type of associative learning. Ivan Pavlov described the learning of conditioned behavior as being formed by pairing two stimuli to condition an animal into giving a certain response. The simplest form of classical conditioning is reminiscent of what Aristotle would have called the law of contiguity, which states that: “When two things commonly occur together, the appearance of one will bring the other to mind.” Classical conditioning focuses on reflexive behavior or involuntary behavior. Any reflex can be conditioned to respond to a formerly neutral stimulus.
John B. Watson’s Little Albert
John B. Watson proposed that emotions (such as fear) can be conditioned in a human being. He believed that such a task could be completed by supplying a stimulus, which causes a response naturally (unconditioned stimulus) at the same time as another object, which does not evoke a response at all (neutral stimulus).
In his experiment, Watson created a fear response in a nine month old orphan, Albert, from a hospital. Before starting the experiment, Watson had to find out if the child was afraid of objects. During this part of the experiment, Watson showed the boy several objects like a rat, rabbit, monkey, dog, cotton wool and masks with and without hair. Watson verified that Albert did not have any fear towards these objects and therefore proceeded with the rest of the experiment. The objects that Albert are shown are the neutral stimuli of this experiment. After establishing some neutral stimuli, Watson found an unconditioned stimulus, which in this case was a loud noise made by banging a hammer on a steel bar. When the loud noise was made, Albert cried and was frightened.
When Albert was 11 months old the actual experiment started because there was hesitation about the ethics of continuing with such an experiment. To condition fear in Albert, Watson and his crew presented the rat and the noise at the same time. Albert would reach for the rat and at that moment the noise would occur. This procedure was performed a total of seven times over the course of one week. After these seven rat and noise pairs, the rat was given to Albert alone. At this point, Albert was stricken with fear and attempted to get very far away from the rat.
Continuing on with the experiment, the researchers wanted to determine if Albert’s fear would transfer to similar objects (this is called generalization). The researchers showed Albert a rabbit, a fur coat, a dog, and Watson’s gray hair and all these items produced fear in little Albert even though he was not conditioned to fear these items. Five days later Albert’s fear reaction was tested. All the items still evoked fear in the infant. Watson moved Albert to a different room to find out if the fear would still be present in different situations. If the fear only existed in the experimenting room then the results of the study would not be useful. Indeed, the fear did carry over into the other room but not in as much intensity.
The testing of Albert’s fear responses was temporarily stopped for thirty-one days because Albert was being adopted and Watson wanted to see if Albert’s fear would continue over time. After the 31 days, Albert was tested once again and the researchers found that Albert indeed still had the fear of the objects from the beginning of the experiment.
At the end of the experiment, Watson wanted to recondition Albert to not fear these objects but did not have the opportunity because Albert was adopted and removed from the hospital.