Conditioning

“Shortly after Pavlov was driving dogs crazy in Russia,[John Broadus (J.B.) Watson (1878-1958)] at Johns Hopkins University… was doing the same thing to humans,” Jim Keith continues.4, i

The Father of Behaviorism, writes Raymond E. Fancher in Pioneers of Psychology, Watson “believed the main significance of [his] studies lay not in the bare fact that people and dogs could both be conditioned to salivate to or withdraw their toes from inherently neutral stimuli, but in their implications for further and broader conditioning experiments.… In particular, he suggested… that human emotions might profitably be thought of as glandular and muscular reflexes which, like salivation, easily become conditioned.” 5

“Early in his writing, Watson described emotions as instinctive, universal, natural reactions. Whereas he ultimately rejected the notion of instinct as superfluous,” writes the Encyclopedia.com website. “He assumed that fear, rage, and love were primary emotional responses and undertook to investigate their modifiability in children.” 6

As Sue, Sue, and Sue expound in Understanding Abnormal Behavior, “in a classic and oft-cited experiment, Watson [John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner, “Conditioned Emotional Reactions, 1920, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1-14], using classical conditioning principles, attempted to condition a fear response in a young child named Albert. [Mary Cover Jones] (1924) reported:

[Little] Albert, eleven months of age, was an infant with phlegmatic disposition, afraid of nothing “under the sun” except a loud sound made by striking a steel bar. This made him cry. By striking the bar at the same time that Albert touched a white rat, the fear transferred to the white rat. After seven combined stimulations, rat and sound, Albert not only became greatly disturbed at the sight of a rat, but this fear had spread to include a white rabbit, cotton, wool, a fur coat, [a dog, a Santa Claus mask (Robert I. Watson, Sr., and Rand B. Evans, The Great Psychologists, Fifth Edition (New York: HarperCollins Publ., Inc., 1991), p. 483.),] and the experimenter’s hair. It did not transfer to his wooden blocks and other objects very dissimilar to the rat [Mary Cover Jones, “A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case of Peter,” Pedagogical Seminary, 1924, 31, pp. 308-309].7, ii

Reports Ben Harris in “Whatever Happened to Little Albert?”:

Unfortunately, most accounts of Watson and Rayner’s research with Albert feature as much fabrication and distortion as they do fact.… For example, not one text mentions that Watson knew when Albert would leave his control – a detail that might make Watson and Rayner’s failure to recondition Albert seem callous to some modern readers.

However, there are other reasons for such errors besides textbooks’ tendencies to tell ethically pleasing stories that are consistent with students’ common sense. One major source of confusion about the Albert story is Watson himself, who altered and deleted important aspects of the study in his many descriptions of it. For example, in the Scientific Monthly description of the study (Watson, J. B., & Watson, R. R. Studies in infant psychology. Scientific Monthly, 1921, 13, 493­515), there is no mention of the conditioning of Albert to the dog, the rabbit, and the rat;… thus Albert’s subsequent responses to these stimuli can be mistaken for a strong generalization effect (for which there is little evidence).8

In the heat of the nature-nurture controversy Watson expounded the battle cry of the radical, militant behaviorist movement:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed and my own specific world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even into a beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors [JB Watson, “What the nursery has to say about instincts,” in Carl Murchison, ed., Psychologies of 1925 (Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1926), p. 19].9

Watson and neurologist Karl Lashley “set out in 1915 to condition humans with a bell (CS) a small electric shock to the foot, (US) and a toe-flexing response,” according to lecture notes on John B. Watson at Sonoma State University in California. “The bell and shock occurred simultaneously. The reflex was not fully reliable but some were conditioned. A subject trained in may [sic] and retested in October required only one reminding shock for the reflex to reappear. They carried out a number of experiments, and Watson believed that emotions as well as saliva flows and toe movements could be conditioned.” 10

Electroshock experiments have also led to electroconvulsive therapy being practiced today to treat symptoms such as severe depression. (The 2004 remake of the 1962 classic film The Manchurian Candidate depicts the protagonist undergoing the controversial procedure in order to forget his flashbacks of having been brainwashed.) “The changes one sees when electroshock is administered are completely consistent with any acute brain injury, such as a blow to the head from a hammer,” stated psychiatrist Dr. Lee Coleman in 1977, quoted at the psychquotes.com website. “In essence, what happens is that the individual is dazed, confused, and disoriented, and therefore cannot remember or appreciate current problems.” 11

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i In the course of his epoch-making experiments on the conditioned reflex, Ivan Pavlov observed that, when subjected to prolonged physical or psychic stress, laboratory animals exhibit all the symptoms of a nervous breakdown. Refusing to cope any longer with the intolerable situation, their brains go on strike, so to speak, and either stop working altogether (the dog loses consciousness), or else resort to slow­downs and sabotage (the dog behaves unrealistically, or develops the kind of physical symptoms which, in a human being, we would call hysterical). Some animals are more resistant to stress than others. Dogs possess­ing what Pavlov called a “strong excitatory” constitution break down much more quickly than dogs of a merely “lively” (as opposed to a choleric or agitated) temperament. Similarly “weak inhibitory” dogs reach the end of their tether much sooner than do “calm imperturbable” dogs. But even the most stoical dog is unable to resist indefinitely. If the stress to which he is subjected is sufficiently intense or sufficiently pro­longed, he will end by breaking down as abjectly and as completely as the weakest of his kind.

Pavlov’s findings were confirmed in the most dis­tressing manner, and on a very large scale, during the two World Wars. As the result of a single catastrophic experience, or of a succession of terrors less appalling but frequently repeated, soldiers develop a number of disabling psychophysical symptoms. Temporary unconsciousness, extreme agitation, lethargy, functional blindness or paralysis, completely unrealistic responses to the challenge of events, strange reversals of lifelong patterns of behavior – all the symptoms, which Pavlov observed in his dogs, reappeared among the victims of what in the First World War was called “shell shock,” in the Second, “battle fatigue.” Every man, like every dog, has his own individual limit of endurance. Most men reach their limit after about thirty days of more or less continuous stress under the conditions of mod­ern combat. The more than averagely susceptible suc­cumb in only fifteen days. The more than averagely tough can resist for forty-five or even fifty days. Strong or weak, in the long run all of them break down. All, that is to say, of those who are initially sane. For, ironically enough, the only people who can hold up indefinitely under the stress of modern war are psychotics. Individual insanity is immune to the consequences of collective insanity.
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1958), pp. 58-59.

ii It must have been wonderful to be a psychologist in the first half of the 20th century. It seems you could do anything to people, from traumatizing a baby who was petting a cute little animal to making people believe that they’d killed someone.
– Esther Inglis-Arkell, “The psychology experiment that involved real beheadings,” 6 June 2013, at http://io9.com/the-psychology-experiment-that-involved-real-beheadings-511592436 (retrieved: 6 June 2013).


4 Jim Keith, Mind Control, World Control (Kempton, Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1997), pp. 30-31.

5 Raymond E. Fancher, Pioneers of Psychology, Second Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990, 1979), p. 294.

6 “John Broadus Watson,” Encylopedia.com, at http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/John_Broadus_Watson.aspx (retrieved: 4 January 2011).

7 David Sue, Derald Sue, and Stanley Sue, Understanding Abnormal Behavior, Fourth Edition (Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1994), p. 72.

8 Ben Harris, “Whatever Happened to Little Albert?”, Vassar College, at http://htpprints.yorku.ca/archive/00000198/01/BHARRIS.HTM (retrieved: 4 January 2011).

9 E. Mavis Hetherington and Ross D. Parke, Child Psychology: A Contemporary View Point, Fourth Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993), p. 80; See also Dennis Coon, Introduction to Psychology: Exploration and Application, Fifth Edition (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1989, 1977), p. 9; Spencer A. Rathus, Psychology, Third Edition (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1987), p. 430; Robert I. Watson, Sr., and Rand B. Evans, The Great Psychologists: A History of Psychological Thought, Fifth Edition (New York: HarperCollins Publ., Inc., 1991), p. 479; and “Watson, John Broadus,” in James P. Chaplin, Dictionary of Psychology, Revised Edition (New York: Laurel, Dell Publ. Co., Inc., 1982, 1968), p. 568.

10 Lecture Notes on John B. Watson, Sonoma State Univeristy, http://www.sonoma.edu/users/d/daniels/watson.html (retrieved: 5 January 2011).

11 Revealing Quotes on the Goals of Psychiatry and Psychology, www.PsychQuotes.com, http://www.psychquotes.com/ (retrieved: 5 January 2011).

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