Role of Learning in Emotion


Many of our emotional reactions are innate as well as learnt too. Except the emotion of fear, rage and love, all other emotions are learned through experiences and interactions with people. Our emotional reactions are learnt through association with new objects and situations.

J.B. Watson, the founder of the Behaviorist school (1930) considered a number of emotions as product of child’s learning experiences. Watson and Rayner have describe the way by which one may learn to fear certain stimuli from their famous experiments with a child, named Albert.

Albert was an 11-month-old boy who was never afraid of animals. In the beginning he was playing with white furry toys, i.e., a rat, a rabbit, a dog monkey and Santaclaus mask. But later, when he was happily looking a white rat, Watson introduced a loud sound, which evoked fear response him.


Albert Shrank repeated the procedure many times whenever Albert was with the white rat. Such repetition of loud sound being associate with the presentation of white rat/rabbit elicited fear responses in Albert. The child was frightened by the very sight of the rabbit and tried to avoid it. When other white toys were shown to him, these also provoked fear in him.

Thus this experiment led to the conclusion that fears emotion can be conditioned. Conditioning is a simple type of learning made possible through association. Thus a stimulus being all the time associated with a fear response becomes in the long run a stimulus for fear. This is called “generalization” phenomenon in learning. The fear responses, which Albert learned, was not limited to the CS only but was generalized to similar objects, i.e. to all white furry toys.

Not only fear, love and rage emotions are learned. The escape avoidance behaviours are learned too. There are many situations, which are emotions producing. We in course of our development learn to fear more and more stimuli, i.e., we develop the ability to distinguish the new stimuli, which are fear provoking from the old ones. Our cognitive abilities help us to be aware of such new emotion-provoking stimuli in the environment.

We also learn many emotional responses including irrational fears through imitations and observations of our sibling and parental behaviours. Similarly many emotional expressions, such as abusive language, temper-tantrum, escape responses etc. are learned behaviours. Facial expressions and gestures in certain emotions are learnt from one’s culture. Many emotional reactions are also modified according to the cultural norm to which the person belongs.

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