The title of this article may come as a surprise to you, but I actually worked with John B. Watson and Rosalie R. Rayner, two very eminent psychologists, in the late 1970s. My career was in the research department of the Armed Forces Psychological Test Battery, or AFST, where we worked with both of them for over fifteen years. In fact, the primary thesis of one of my recent books, The Science of Stimulus Generalization, was based on much of what was done by both of them. I’d like to talk to you about the lessons they taught me, particularly about why they were such an influential presence in the psychological community.
What did John B. Watson and Rosalie R. Rayner teach us about classical conditioning and other forms of learned helplessness?
The two of them argued that classical conditioning was ineffective, and that people were better off using operant methods of conditioning. This led them to develop what came to be known as the Emotional Learning Model, or ELM. Within a few years, however, this model had fallen into disuse, largely because it could not adequately explain the workings of the human mind. It became a sort of standard of therapy for psychologists, but it failed to garner attention from the scientific community.
But in recent years, more interest has been shown in EML, or the Emotional Learning Model
The biggest reason is that it accounts for phenomena that go beyond classical conditioning. It can account for abnormal behavior, for instance, and it can explain the phenomenon of resistance to training. All of these things are important to psychiatrists and therapists, who need to be able to deal with a wide range of issues.
Now one of the things that classical conditioning cannot do is provide a cure. Some people will continue to be distressed by a traumatic experience, no matter how it happens. Others will resist treatment no matter what it involves. But the fact that classical conditioning is unable to handle all situations calls into question the whole idea of classical conditioning itself.
People learning to meditate, for instance, are unable to apply classical conditioning to their problems, and they will remain distressed
But those learning to play an instrument can apply classical conditioning to their problems, and they can learn to apply it to their playing. So people in a variety of different circumstances can benefit from the use of this form of therapy. The problem is that it cannot apply itself to every situation, and it does not always work as effectively as it should.
One major difficulty with classical conditioning is that it seems to rely on one basic theory: stimulus generalization. Basically, stimulus generalization is the idea that if you give a child a certain stimulus, he’ll create that particular response in his mind. For instance, if you pair a child who’s afraid of the dark with a bright light, he’ll either become afraid even more or he’ll produce light in response. If you pair a person with a stimulus that he enjoys, he’ll do the same.
But what if the child doesn’t know what the stimulus generalization is?
In cases like this, classical conditioning is worthless. Instead, what you need is a treatment that addresses the issue at its root. What did John Watson and Roaldie Rayner have to do with it?
They developed a treatment based on the assumption that classical conditioning was not working. That is, the child wasn’t responding because of the classical conditioning, but because he had learned certain behavioral patterns from his parents. When he goes to a new place and hears something exciting, for example, he’ll be excited. Instead of responding to classical conditioning, he responds to the new stimuli because he already has a response built into his system.