GUEST POST: Babies learn fear by association

Asalaam Alaikum/Hi all!

I am so excited to share my first ever guest post and I feel privileged that Nas from Closing Pandora’s Box agreed to write a guest post for me. I am in awe of his writing and he never fails to impress with his blog posts. He does not blog daily or even weekly but when he does it has always been worth the wait.

Enjoy his post. Feel free to comment and follow his blog.Photobucket

The first primary school I went to was predominantly white. There were only 3 non-whites there; me, my sister and another Asian boy. In year 5 a black French boy joined my class. One day we had a supply teacher to cover the afternoon lessons. She was a lovely Jamaican lady (I can still remember what we did in that lesson). While she was teaching a boy kept repeatedly talking and as any teacher would, she told him to be quiet and concentrate on his work. He put his pen down, got up and looked at the teacher with eyes like a snake’s full of venom, and shouted, “Go swim back to your country, you’re not wanted here.” Everyone gasped. Later that day I saw the child’s father walking into school. On his arm was a tattoo of a symbol that I did not recognise at that young age. I was 9 or 10 at that time. It was only a few years later while studying World War II did I understand the horrors the swastika had come to represent. We never saw the teacher again.
Have you ever wondered where emotions come from? The feeling of happiness that leaves you all warm and fuzzy inside, the butterflies in the stomach when nervous, the sorrowful moments that leave the eyes moist and misty. Are they innate responses with which we are born or do we learn them as we grow older?
It was once believed that we are born with 3 basic set of emotions; love, fear and rage. The mixing together of the 3 in different quantities gives rise to the wide array of all the others that we know.
In the 1920’s a ground breaking study was carried out by J.B. Watson (John Hopkins University, Baltimore) in which he showed that we can be conditioned to fear a particular thing or object. This experiment has been recorded in many scientific books and today, if you are a psychology student you most probably have heard of Little Albert. To carry out his experiment Watson required a subject that was free from all fears and was still at a naive state of emotional development. The only individuals that fit these particular requirements are…babies. Little Albert was 9 months old when he became a part of the study.
“At approximately nine months of age we ran him through the emotional tests that have become a part of our regular routine in determining whether fear reactions can be called out by other stimuli than sharp noises and the sudden removal of support. In brief, the infant was confronted suddenly and for the first time successively with a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, with masks with and without hair, cotton wool, burning newspapers, etc. At no time did this infant ever show fear in any situation. The infant practically never cried. The test to determine whether a fear reaction could be called out by a loud sound was made when he was eight months, twenty-six days of age. The sound was that made by striking a hammer upon a suspended steel bar four feet in length and three-fourths of an inch in diameter.”

“The child started violently, his breathing was checked and the arms were raised in a characteristic manner. On the second stimulation the same thing occurred, and in addition the lips began to pucker and tremble. On the third stimulation the child broke into a sudden crying fit. This is the first time an emotional situation in the laboratory has produced any fear or even crying in Albert. We had expected just these results on account of our work with other infants brought up under similar conditions. It is worthwhile to call attention to the fact that removal of support (dropping and jerking the blanket upon which the infant was lying) was tried exhaustively upon this infant on the same occasion. It was not effective in producing the fear response.”
On exposure to potentially dangerous things (burning paper, animals) it was seen that the baby exhibited no fear and neither any discomfort. It was only on hearing of the sound of the metal bar being struck did Albert begin to cry.
I. “Can we condition fear of an animal, e.g., a white rat, by visually presenting it and simultaneously striking a steel bar?”

A rat was presented to Albert and as he was about to touch the animal, the bar was struck immediately behind his head. After exactly 7 joint stimulations the rat was presented on its own. Almost instantly, the baby began to cry. He fell onto his side, got up on all fours and rapidly crawled away. It was concluded therefore that a child could be taught to fear something they may have otherwise been afraid of by presenting that thing with another that causes them to be upset.
II. “If such a conditioned emotional response can be established, will there be transfer to other animals or objects?”

It was observed that exposure of Albert to fur coats, Santa Claus, rabbits and dogs evoked fear responses in him causing him to withdraw and or begin crying. Fear of the ‘furry’ nature of the rat also transferred itself in the form of fear of other animals. It is said that not so Little Albert opened his snuff box and died from the shock of seeing cotton wool in there.
During early childhood children develop at an exponential rate. Babies may seem ‘aloof’ and lost in their own worlds but like a dry sponge readily absorbs water, their brains absorb everything. Whatever they see, or whatever they hear becomes imprinted somewhere on the complex map of neurones and synapses being built within their heads. The foundations of a building dictate the type, shape, and size of the building that can be built on top. Once the foundations become solidified, it can be extremely difficult to incorporate any changes into the building as they may not be properly supported. In the same way I think the early years of a child are extremely important. It is when they are like play dough, highly impressionable and so extra care has to be taken to educate them in the proper manner. It is also the time, when, if a child picks up something ‘bad’ it can be rectified. With adults this is much more difficult. Adults that have held a particular view about someone or something or are set in their ways are difficult to persuade to change their minds. Like they say, “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks”.
What a child experiences during their youth is what they’ll give later on in life. If they are abundantly loved, they’ll be able to love. If they are hated, then that is what they will share with others. What do you think happened to the child I mentioned right at the beginning of this post?
All extracts and pictures from J.B. Watson’s writings were taken from here (

“With special thanks to Rosaline for discussing the ideas”. Thanks :).

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  • i suppose he became aloof? his intolerant nature wont garner him company except those of the submissive kind. but i can only guess.

    i learnt of little albert in basic psychology class. bechara.

    how can people instill negativity when everyone wants the same thing – happiness.

  • Hey!
    I was a psychology student, and I love psychology aloot, so I heard of little Albert's study…Very interesting even though i thought it was a bit cruel in the way they may have done it with the loud bang, but it is true, as babies we are so delicate, and its important the way we are brought up. How something can be associated with another that produces a behavior, maybe carry it for the rest of our lives. Thanks a lot for this post, reminded me of myself when i was in psychology class lol.

  • he is an AMAZING writer, no doubt about it!
    the funny thing is im a psych student, and my proff introduced us to this case study just this morning! and surely someone raised his hand and asked "Did watson reverse the effect after?" and the proff gave a disappointed shake of the head. To think some of the greatest scientists would carry out such unethical experiments. =/ Shame.

    Loveed the post! 😀

  • Fantastic post! Children are easily conditioned and this is something which many people seem to forget. Thank you for such an excellent reminder.

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  • If you eamil me I am happy to discuss your post/articles with you. I will be away from the blog for 3 weeks so feel free to email me at the end of November. You can get my email address from the contact page.