Description: If you have had an introductory psychology course you have likely learned something about phobias. Phobia’s are usually described as irrational fears. Learning theorists (John Watson foremost among them) argued that phobias are learned when a situation or object or animal is associated with a fear inducing stimulus such as an unexpected loud sound. Watson demonstrated the formation of such an association in his work with “Little Albert” (if you do not know that name then have a look at the links in the Further Reading section below and prepare yourself for a textbook description of unethical research behavior). A major challenge to the learning theorists’ view of phobias is the observation that some phobic associations are much much easier to establish than others. In simple term this means that phobias to snakes are common and easy to establish whereas phobias to chairs or bowties are either nonexistent or at least very difficult to create via associative terrors. What might that be? Well, perhaps we have genetically linked fears that were created through evolutionary forces. Think of it this way. Would children in hunting and gathering societies who though all snakes were cute and huggable likely survive to reproduce (and thus pass on their genes)? How about children who so love to look at vast open views that they rush right up to the edge of every cliff top they find to better see the new view? What about children who so love confined spaces they craw into every bear sized cave they find without a moment’s hesitation? I think you probably get the picture. But how to assess this claim? After all, as it sits, it is really just a good story, much like the origin myths of many cultures. So what sorts of things might we do, empirically, to at least partially test this evolutionary theory? Well, think about that and then, once you have, read the article linked below to see how the researchers who designed the study discussed went about addressing this question.
Source: Scaring Babies for Science, Bill Andrews, D-Brief, Discover.
Date: October 20, 2017
Photo Credit: Sutterstock
Ethical considerations aside (no babies were harmed in the conducting of this study.?) the researchers demonstrated that very young infants show more signs of trepidation or fear when shown pictures of snakes or spiders that other things. While not entirely conclusive it seems likely that such early fears may well be “primordial” or genetically wired in.
Questions for Discussion:
- What are phobias?
- Can phobias be learned? Are all phobias learned?
- What sorts of ethical considerations might apply or at least be at play in relation to the study described in the article linked above?
References (Read Further):
Hoehl, S., Hellmer, K., Johansson, M., & Gredebäck, G. (2017). Itsy bitsy spider…: Infants react with increased arousal to spiders and snakes. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1710. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01710/full
Harris, B. (1979). Whatever happened to little Albert?. American psychologist, 34(2), 151. http://users.sussex.ac.uk/~grahamh/RM1web/Classic%20papers/Harris1979.pdf
Beck, H. P., Levinson, S., & Irons, G. (2009). Finding little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson’s infant laboratory. American Psychologist, 64(7), 605. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Hall_Beck/publication/26890384_Finding_Little_Albert_A_Journey_to_John_B_Watson%27s_Infant_Laboratory/links/57b0894e08ae15c76cba2713/Finding-Little-Albert-A-Journey-to-John-B-Watsons-Infant-Laboratory.pdf