Conditional Emotional Responses

Conditional emotional responses (CERs ) are learned emotional reactions like anxiety or happiness that occur as a response to predictive cues. Most American psychologists use the -ed form of the word, calling CERs "conditioned emotional responses." However, to be consistent with earlier arguments about the translation of Pavlov's terms from Russian to English, we will stay with the term conditional except when quoting people who use the -ed form.

The process of acquiring a CER is similar to the process of acquiring any other conditional response. A signal comes before a biologically significant event, and the organism learns the correlation (literally "making the connection" on a neural level). For example, we could sound a tone and give you an electric shock. Such fear conditioning establishes a CER quickly. After one or two pairings, the sound of the tone will send a wave of apprehension through amygdalar circuits of any organism capable of processing fear.

What is a CER? What is the ideal CS-UCS interval for an emotional response?

The ideal interval for creating a CER is somewhat longer than the ideal interval for creating a conditional response involving skeletal muscles. You might recall that the ideal CS-UCS interval for motor responses (responses involving skeletal muscle movement, such as finger withdrawal) is half a second. For emotional responses, the ideal interval is 2-10 seconds, sometimes longer, and the timing does not matter as much as it does with motor responses.

What are some CERs commonly seen by therapists

Emotional responses are typically regulated by the autonomic nervous system. As discussed in Chapter 2, the autonomic nervous system consists of two subdivisions, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. They have largely opposite functions. The sympathetic nervous system is activated in the so-called "fight or flight" reaction, which produces a raised heartbeat, sweating, and other symptoms of arousal.

What did Eysenck assert?

Many psychologists believe CERs involving the sympathetic nervous system are responsible for panic attacks, stage fright, test anxiety, and similar unpleasant emotions. These responses tend to be unconsciously learned and therefore difficult to control, so they drive people to seek help. British psychologist Hans Eysenck once asserted, "...all neuroses are essentially conditioned emotional responses" (Cunningham, 1984).

How does a CER get set up in natural situations?

How does a CER get set up, in natural circumstances? All it takes is an experience that causes strong emotion. In the case of CERs that send people to therapy, the strong emotion is a negative emotion such as pain, fear, or anxiety. A car crash, for example, will normally be preceded by certain stimuli such as driving a car. After the car crash, the prospect of driving a car might fill a person with dread. The dread would be a CER.

How can a teacher trigger a CER with a few words?

I asked a colleague, Doug Marshall, if he had a handy, real-life example of a conditional emotional response. He said, "Sure. Walk into your class and say, 'Take out a blank sheet of notebook paper, and put your books on the floor.'" These words uttered by a teacher lead to a wave of anxiety in college students. The anxiety is an anticipatory response to a stressful event: a surprise test.

How does odor become a CER?

CERs can involved any stimulus, including odor. The emotions involved can be pleasant, or highly complex. A certain odor may evoke memories of a grandparent's home. Students who love horses often report that the smell of horse manure is pleasant for them, no doubt because of good associations with horses. My children, when young, told me they loved the smell of gasoline. Perhaps they associated it with pleasant trips in the car, or with rides around the yard on the lawn tractor. The smell of gasoline might provoke a very different reaction in someone recovering from a car wreck. After breaking up a close relationship, many people respond to the smell of perfume or cologne that their ex-lover wore; it creates a wave of nostalgia, regret, or perhaps relief in some cases.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey