Learning to be anxious: the conditioning of fear

Cartoon scary ghost

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.

Learning to run away – operant conditioning of avoidance

Operant conditioning is when we learn behaviour patterns from consequences – which could be rewards or punishments. If my computer crashes every time I press a partcular key, then I will quickly learn not to press that key – quite possibly without even being aware this learning has occurred. The crash is a form of punishment: punishment is any consequence that makes a behaviour less likely to be repeated. A reward is any consequence that makes a behaviour more likely to be repeated.

I don’t like to feel afraid. So if a Wiggles song comes on the radio and triggers fear after my traumatic experience of the car crashing into my house, I want that fear to stop. If I switch off the radio, the clasically conditioned trigger of my fear has been stopped – and my fear goes away. Relief from fear is nice, so next time I hear a Wiggles song I am going to want to turn it off again to remove that fear. The removal of fear by turning off the song was a reward.

Now I have a clasically conditioned fear of The Wiggles and an operant conditioned avoidance of The Wiggles.

This fear and avoidnce of The Wiggles is, of course, completely illogical – but it feels absolutely real.

Anxiety and phobias

There are many ways phobias or anxiety can start other than classical conditioning. But problematic anxiety is almost universally maintained by the rewarding experience of escaping anxiety. If you want to overcome anxiety there is really no option but to be first prepared to let youself experience anxiety – gradually and in stages if you like, but it must be faced.

Magic bullets for anxiety – drugs like valium, xanax and all the other benzodiazepines – have proved to be disasterous for sufferers of anxiety. They are enormously effective (at first) at making anxiety go away – but this is just another form of avoidance. Then, over time, the drug is less effective and higher doses are needed. The underlying trigger for anxiety, meanwhile, is stronger than ever: because every time we run away from our fear or pop a pill to switch it off we teach ourselves to believe, “I couldn’t have coped with the anxiety if I hadn’t done that.” If you suffer from anxiety there is one thing that is good to avoid, at all costs – benzodiazepines.

Once we stop avoiding our fear we inevitably have the unpleasant experience of feeling it. But in doing so we develop our capacity to tolerate fear, we undo the learned associations of avoidance and of the trigger of the fear, we experience less fear over time and … we get better.

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.


  1. This makes a lot of sense,but is it always the case that facing the thing we fear will result in relief of the anxiety, or is it possible that in certain situations even with long term conditioning anxiety will remain?

    • Good question. There are situations where facing a fear could be unhelpful. If you face a fear by doing something that involves real risk and there is a bass outcome, that may reinforce the fear. Also, if you start by immediately exposing yourself to your worst fear there is a possibility of experiencing such intense anxiety that you are unable to resist the impulse to flee the situation. For anxiety too lessen it is necessary to remain in the situation until your anxiety begins to diminish all by itself. If that doesn’t happen the exposure is unlikely to help. For this reason psychologists develop a list of different situations, from least to most frightening, to progressively work through for treatment.

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