Classical Conditioning and Phobias

Classical Conditioning is a form of associative learning which was first discovered by Ivan Pavlov. His experiment on his dog Circa lead him to discoveries of underlying principles of Classical Conditioning. The more important question that stuck around was if the experiment would work on humans. The task was to prove the theory was then taken on by JB Watson and Rayner, and conducted the Little Albert experiment in 1920. The experiment not only concluded that Classical Conditioning worked on humans, but also that phobias could be caused by conditioned learning.

Little Albert Experiment

The experiment was done on a 9 month old infant by the name of Albert. To begin the process, Little Albert was tested on his reactions to various stimuli such as white rat, rabbit, monkey, masks and so on. Kid showed no signs of fear towards these stimuli. Upon testing his reactions by striking the hammer against a steel bar, it was seen that Little Albert was startled at the loud sound of the sudden noise and he would immediately burst into tears.

After Albert turned 11 months old, the conditioning began. A white rat was presented in front of the baby and the hammer was struck against the steel bar just seconds later. The trial was repeated 7 times over the next 7 weeks and Albert would startle and burst into tears every time. It was then observed that the white rat alone was enough to scare the baby. Little Albert would cry at the sight of the white rabbit and attempt to crawl away even when there was no sound of the hammer striking against the steel bar.

little Albert being experimented on.

Little Albert Experiment and Phobia

Watson and Rayner then discovered that Albert had started to show fear against objects similar to the white rat. Little Albert showed signs of fear when presented with white fur coat, cotton wool, white Christmas mask and even the family dog. This process is known as generalization and is vital to relate phobias with classical conditioning.


Phobia can be defined as the term used to describe an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something. Phobia also refers to the feat that is out of proportion to the danger.


How Phobia can be learned through Classical Conditioning?

Fear is a behavior that can be learned via classical conditioning. When a neutral stimulus, something that does not cause fear, is associated with an unconditioned stimulus, something that causes fear; the process then leads to the response of fear towards the previously neutral stimulus. This process then changes the neutral stimulus into conditioned stimulus, and the neutral response becomes the conditioned response. To put it in simpler terms, the neutral or the conditioned stimulus becomes something that causes fear to an organism.

In little Albert experiment, Albert was conditioned such that he started becoming afraid of the white rat. Then the phobia of white furry objects which resembled the characteristic of the white rat gradually developed with Little Albert.

In another example, when the case of little Herbert, who had developed a phobia against horses, came across Sigmund Freud, he concluded that little Herbert’s phobic fear was due to the classical conditioning learning of fear.
Herbert first showed fear against horses after seeing and hearing a large horse fall and kick violently. This sight and sound of the horse is conditioned stimulus (CS). The ruckus created by the agitating behavior of the horse would have been sufficient to scare any child. The sight and sound of the commotion raised around Herbert was the unconditioned stimulus (UCS). The learned distress automatically elicited by the behavior of the horse was the conditioned response (CR). Freud concluded that the pairing of CS – UCS when Herbert was taking a walk with his mother lead to the acquisition of the CR. With his example, it is clear how Phobia can be learned through Classical Conditioning