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Does classical conditioning work on humans? In this lesson, you’ll explore this question as poor Little Albert is taught to fear a rat. You’ll also see how classical conditioning can be used in advertising. Think of something you’re afraid of – a rat, a spider, or even a creepy clown. Now think back to the first time you realized you were scared of it.

Was it because someone else you were with jumped at the sight of it? Or did you have a bad experience that made you fear it?

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American psychologist John Watson
John Watson

We’re not instinctively wired to run when see a rat. My friend has a pet rat, so I think they’re cute. But my other friend is deathly afraid of rats because her mom screams every time she sees one. My friend associates rats with her mom screaming, so rats scare her. This sort of classical conditioning occurs unintentionally in our daily lives, and can really influence our preferences and fears.

In 1920, American psychologist John Watson conducted an unorthodox scientific experiment on fear in babies that illustrates this type of classical conditioning. Observing that babies naturally fear loud noises, Watson set out to train an 8-month-old baby to associate a loud noise (a natural, unconditioned stimulus) with a conditioned stimulus. In this case, the conditioned stimulus was a live white rat, which the subject, Little Albert, didn’t fear when he was initially allowed to play with it.As the experiment began, a calm Little Albert was brought into the lab. Watson hid behind a curtain, ready with a metal bar and a hammer.

As Albert entered the room, Watson released the rat and struck the metal bar with a hammer, causing Albert to cry.

Little Albert did not fear the rat initially.
conditioned stimulus

The next day, when the experiment was repeated, Little Albert cried when he saw the rat even before Watson had a chance to make the loud noise with the hammer.

This experiment was successful in conditioning the baby to fear the rat by associating – it with a loud, scary noise.Watson later applied the idea of creating paired associations to a successful career in advertising. By linking products with a spokesperson who is already recognized and admired by consumers, he was able to raise sales.

This technique is still used in advertising today. Have you ever bought Wheaties because your favorite athlete was on the cereal box? By creating a link between cereal and sports stars, Wheaties became more popular with kids.Another example is the McDonald’s ad campaign that used Olympic athletes. When you think of Olympic athletes, you think of healthy, muscular people who are the picture of health and fitness.

In order to plant the idea that McDonald’s food is healthy, the company sponsored Olympic athletes who appeared in their ads.

The baby began to associate the rat with a loud, scary noise.
experiment baby

To review, John Watson used classical conditioning to create paired associations between unrelated stimuli. We can be trained to link an unconditioned response (on screen: thinking something is healthy) with a new, conditioned stimulus (on screen: = McDonald’s image) when it’s associated with something that we already react to naturally in that way (on screen: = image of Olympic athlete).

These methods impact us daily through advertising and other media.

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