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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."

As of this writing, Google even auto-corrects "conditional" to "conditioned," which is unfortunate. However, to be consistent with the earlier point about accurately translating Pavlov's terms from Russian to English, we will stay with the term conditional.

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 by strengthening synapses.

For example, a researcher could sound a tone and give a small electric shock to a mouse. Such fear conditioning estab­lishes a CER quickly. After one or two pairings, the sound of the tone will send a wave of fear through the mouse.

What is a CER?

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 (involving skeletal muscle movement, such as finger withdrawal) is half a second.

For emotional responses, the ideal interval is 2-10 seconds, sometimes longer. The timing does not matter as much as with motor responses. This difference may have evolved because emotional responses involve slower-responding systems such as glands.

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

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 effects. When activated, the sympathetic nervous system produces the so-called "fight or flight" reaction. This is typified by a raised heartbeat, sweating, and other symptoms of arousal. The parasym­pathetic system, when activated, pro­duces more of a "rest and recovery" biological response.

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.

Because people cannot talk themselves out of a classically conditioned, uncon­sciously-derived response, reactions of emotional distress drive people to seek help from therapists. British psychologist Hans Eysenck asserted, "...all neuroses are essentially conditioned emotional responses" (Cunningham, 1984).

What did Eysenck assert?

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 reaction such as pain, fear, or anxiety. A car crash, for example, will normally be preceded by the sights, sounds, and odors of 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 does a CER get set up in natural situations?

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 can a teacher trigger a CER with a few words?

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 may say the odor 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.

How does odor become a CER?

After breaking up a close relationship, many people respond to the smell of perfume or cologne worn by an ex-lover. It creates a wave of nostalgia, regret, or perhaps relief in some cases.

Sexual Anticipation

Sexual response is another complex reaction modulated by neurochemicals. Like the others, it is subject to classical conditioning.

Graham and Desjardins (1980) provided male rats with sexual partners in the same environment each day. Soon the rats showed an eightfold rise in sex hormones when placed into the cage, even when there were no other rats present.

Domjan, Blesbois, and Williams (1998) did a similar experiment with quail. They found that male quail produced more sperm of better quality after being presented with a stimulus (the sight of a female's head and neck) that previously came before copulation.

The researchers pointed out the clear implication. Pavlovian learning can improve an animal's reproductive and evolutionary success.

How did Graham and Desjardins demonstrate classical conditioning of sex hormone response? What was a similar finding with quail?

A student reported how classical conditioning was used to help gather sperm for artificial insemination of horses.

I wanted to tell you about a form of classical conditioning that I've encountered. In high school. I planned on majoring in veterinary medicine, and I attended a number of workshops offered by the University of Georgia.

In one workshop we were learning about sperm collection for artificial insemination of farm animals. Apparently in previous years they had a student hold a stallion in place while other students paraded mares in front of the stallion until he was aroused.

Then the mares would be escorted out. The stallion would be allowed to mount a fake horse that would collect the sperm in a bottle attached to it.

Realizing that students could get hurt, the agriculture officials chose to use classical conditioning. They kept the stallion in his pen and several times they let the mares in.

Just before the mares entered a red flag was raised. Eventually the stallions would become aroused when the flag was raised. That meant nobody had to hold the stallion or parade the mares; they could just raise the flag, open the pen, and the stallion would mount the fake horse. [Author's files]

How did agriculture experts use classical conditioning to help with artificial insemination?

Some psychologists speculate that odd sexual attractions, called paraphilias, are the result of classical conditioning. For example, shoes are sexually arousing to some people.

Perhaps that person experienced the sight and smell of a shoe right before a sexually arousing experience. The result might be a shoe fetish (sexual arousal from sight or contact with shoes).

How might paraphilias be due to classical conditioning?

There is no proof this explanation is correct. However, it is one of the few reasonable ways to explain paraphilias, many of which are quite odd and otherwise difficult to explain.

CERs from Traumatic Events

Conditional emotional responses (CERs) can be set up by a single traumatic incident. On July 17, 1981, a poorly designed skywalk in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel collapsed beneath a dancing crowd. Many people died.

Psychiatrist Charles Wilkinson studied survivors. He found that nearly half of them startled easily.

"Sudden noises, particularly those which reminded subjects of the skywalks tearing away from their supports and falling, produced striking overreactions, often to the subject's embarrassment." (Creekmore, 1984)

What are common ways that survivors of traumatic incidents show CERs?

Survivors of World Wars I and II reported conditional emotional reactions to loud, sudden sounds that reminded them of bombs. Sirens resembling air raid sirens had to be put out of commission, rather than repurposed, because they were so alarming to the citizenry.

Soldiers returning from an active combat zone may feel a burst of anxiety when a car backfires nearby. "A pothole gets them jittery because it reminds them of potential bombs," one social worker on an army base said (Urbina, 2007).

These reactions are like reflexes: they occur before a person has time to think or squelch them. In Chapter 13 (Ther­apies) we discuss how treatment of these conditional emotional responses is accomplished by desensitization and exposure therapies, which are basically extinction procedures.

Wolpe and Rachman (1960) made a famous re-interpretation of one of Freud's classic case studies, the case of Little Hans. Little Hans was a five-year-old boy who developed a fear of horses after an accident involving a horse-drawn carriage.

Freud interpreted the boy's fear of horses as symbolic of sexual conflicts. The problem (Freud said) was that Hans had unconscious sexual desires for his mother and wanted his father gone, fearing his father might castrate him.

This is actually quite typical of Freud's thinking. Hans feared that his father knew about his lust for the mother and therefore might castrate him.

The accident symbolized castration. The horse, a penis symbol, was an uncomfortable reminder of his father's power. So, as Freud explained it, fear of the father was converted into fear of the horse.

Wolpe and Rachman mocked Freud's explanation. They pointed to an obvious alternative, suggesting the boy developed his fear of horses as a conditional response.

The sight of the horse preceded the carriage accident. Therefore when Little Hans saw a horse (a conditional stimulus) he grew fearful and anxious (a conditional response).

To most psychologists, that is a much better explanation than Freud's. It is not only less speculative; it is based on a well-known phenomenon that can be demonstrated in any laboratory or classroom: the conditional (or "conditioned") emotional response.

How did behaviorists re-interpret Freud's Little Hans story?


Creekmore, C. R. (1984, May). Disastrous aftermaths. Psychology Today, p.75.

Cunningham, S. (1984, February). Eysenck argues for conditioning theory of neurotic behavior. APA Monitor, p.23.

Domjan, M., Blesbois, E., & Williams, J. (1998). The adaptive significance of sexual conditioning: Pavlovian control of sperm release. Psychological Science, 9, 411-415.

Graham, J. M. & Desjardins, C. (1980). Classical conditioning: Induction of luteinizing hormone and testosterone secretion in anticipation of sexual activity. Science, 210, 1039-1041.

Urbina, I. (2007, July 15) As loved ones fight on, war doubts arise. New York Times. Retrieved from:

Wolpe, J. & Rachman, S. (1960) Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 131 135-148.

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