January 9, 2010

Fear of the Sound of Eating

In his January 11, 2010 Time article, Lev Grossman describes his fear of people eating:

"I'm filled with overpowering, irrational dread by the sight or sound of another human being eating or drinking. It doesn't make any more sense to me than it does to you. But that's what a phobia is: a fear that has nothing to do with logic or common sense." (See yesterday's post for more on phobias.)

The article goes on to quote the National Institute of Mental Health on how common phobias are in the US: 8.7% of people over 18 have a specific phobia. (The first time I read that, I thought it said 87%. Now THAT scared me!)

You can easily Google "phobias" to find lists of phobias common enough to actually have names.

The Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov (d. 1936) explained phobias as fears produced by Associative Learning's Classical Conditioning. In CC you have two kinds of stimuli (conditioned and unconditioned) and two kinds of responses (conditioned and unconditioned).

A natural (unconditioned) response (such as fear) becomes associated with something not naturally connected with it.

John Watson (d. 1958) created a phobia in the toddler, "Little Albert," by sounding a loud gong, which scared Albert (an unconditioned fear), at the same time he handed him a white rat (of which he was not originally afraid). Relatively quickly, Albert became afraid of the rat. He had learned to "associate" the rat with the loud noise, so whenever he was handed the rat he anticipated the gong and started crying as soon as he was handed the rat.

The Unconditioned Response (fear of loud noises) from the Unconditioned Stimulus (loud gong) had become associated with a Conditioned Stimulus (white rat), producing the Conditioned Response (fear of the rat).

John Watson produced the phobia in Albert, handed him back to his parents and said, "Thank you for letting us use Albert in our experiment. Good luck with him."

POP QUIZ: Take this information and use it to explain how Lev Grossman's sound-of-food-being-eaten phobia developed.

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