This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 05 table of contents.

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 those surveyed 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 or to sirens that resembled air raid sirens. Soldiers returning from Iraq may feel anxiety and fear when a car backfires nearby, making a sound like a gunshot or improvised exposive device. "A pothole gets them jittery because it reminds them of potential bombs," one social worker on an army base said (Urbina, 2007).The reaction is like a reflex; it occurs before they have time to think about it. In Chapter 13 (Therapies) we discuss how classical conditioning can be used in a therapy technique called desensitization to extinguish such responses.

Wolpe and Rachman (1960) made a famous re-interpretation of one of Freud's classic case studies, the case of Little Hans, which they re-interpreted as a conditional emotional response (CER). 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 out of the way. Hans feared that his father knew this and 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. (This is actually quite typical of Freud's thinking.)

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

Wolpe and Rachman mocked Freud's explanation and pointed to an obvious alternative. They suggested that 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, this 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.


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