In one of Psychology’s dark moments, an 8 month old baby was taught to have a phobia of harmless furry things.
These unethical experiments, conducted in the 1920s by psychologist John Watson, were seen as evidence of how fear of harmless things can be learned through a process called classical conditioning. A careful observer will note numerous problems in the above video with how Watson conducted his research. However, better-controlled studies have since confirmed that fear, or anxiety, can indeed be learned through clasical conditioning.
What is classical conditioning?
Classical conditioning is a process by which we learn to associate an automatic response (such as fear, hunger, sleepiness) with a particular cue (a sound, object, sensation) because that cue has repeatedly been experienced to coincide with something that already caused that response. In the little Albert experiment, poor Albert was repeatedly distressed by a loud sound, causing fear, at the same time as he was exposed to a white rat. With time the rat (or more probably Watson himself) became a trigger of fear.
This is one way that we can learn to fear a thing – by its coincicidence with something scary. If I happen to be watching The Wiggles on tv at the moment a car crashes into my lounge room wall it is possible I might experience trepidation when I next hear a Wiggles song.