Police Psychology | Why Do I Do That!
Police psychology is sometimes very complicated, but sometimes it is not. Let’s spend today’s post back to the Psychology 101 classical conditioning roots. The funny thing is, this whole discovery and all its implications was actually the result of an accident. Pavlov set out to research digestion, but in the process of his experimentation, he noticed his dog began to salivate when he heard a bell ring because he had learned that that meant food was coming. Thus began classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a tremendously large field that we can’t possibly hope to cover in one post. Today, we will begin with some classical conditioning basics.
Briefly, classical conditioning is when a formerly neutral stimulus, or conditioned stimulus (CS), such as the tone of a bell, becomes paired with an unconditioned stimulus (UCS), such as real food, so that the neutral stimulus produces the response meant for the UCS. The more the neutral stimulus is paired with the UCS, the greater the conditioned response. This is a very delicate balancing game: the CS neutral stimulus must be presented closely enough in time to the UCS so that the individual learns to associate the two with each other. Have I lost you yet? I can’t stand initials.
Classical conditioning is often associated with fear conditioning. In one seminal study, Watson trained a little boy, called Little Albert, to fear a white rat that he initially loved. How? He paired the presence of the white rat with a sudden, loud noise. Little Albert learned to associate this scary noise with the rat, so eventually he came to fear the rat itself, because it was now associated with the aversive noise. With more trials, this fear then came to be generalized, and he soon learned to fear all things furry, like cats, and hamsters, and even a Santa Clause mask. What no one will tell you is there was a big controversy whether our buddy Little Al really was a well-functioning kid, and whether some of this result really happened at all, but that may be a reaction to Watson sleeping with a grad student and leaving psychology to invent some classic marketing strategies and themes that netted him a lot of money, but for now let’s say it happened as the books tell us.
Classical Conditioning in Everyday Life
Classical conditioning is a lot more common than you may think. In fact, many emotional and physiological responses you experience in everyday life are actually the result of classical conditioning, even if you are never aware that your brain has made any associations! Here are some examples: have you ever heard scary music play in the background of a movie or TV show and you instinctively knew something bad was about to happen? Or have you ever looked over at the clock and noticed its noon, and all of a sudden your stomach starts growling when you weren’t hungry a few minutes ago? And I’m sure almost everyone here can attest to the fact that when they see a pretty girl or guy, they experience an emotional and physiological reaction almost immediately. All classical conditioning.
Here are a few hypothetical questions: do you think you would be willing to eat chocolate fudge formed to look like dog feces? Or would you be willing to drink a cup of apple juice that a sterilized cockroach had been dipped into? Or do you think you’d be willing to drink a solution with sugar that was taken from a container with the label “poison” on it, even if you were told the label was incorrect? Rozin & Fallon (1987) posed these very types of situations to participants and noticed that even when participants could logically understand that nothing was wrong or unhealthy about these items they were told to eat or drink, emotionally, they just could not force themselves to get passed their level of disgust associated with dog feces, bugs, and poison. Conditioned responses are not created through logical and conscious thought. Because of this, it is very hard to force people to consciously separate responses they think are reflexive or natural or autonomic, even though in truth they are really responses learned through unconscious conditioning.
Published in one of the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader was a strange classical conditioning story about Santa Claus. It talked about how an artist named Haddon Sundblom drew the current image of Santa in his red, white with a black belt in the 30’s to look like a Coca Cola bottle—and it stuck. Santa was many images before that in different colors, but the Santa in Coke corporate colors is the one most of us think of. Haddon Sundblom was hired by none other than Watson when he was in advertising. Nah, I made that up about Watson, although it was in the same time. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. But the Coke bottle Santa Claus thing is argued by many, so who knows.
Classical Conditioning and the Media
Classical conditioning is a powerful force, but it’s not always negative. In the advertising world, companies try to exploit our responses to unconditioned stimuli, like our arousal when we see a pretty woman, or our warm feeling when we see people laughing and smiling together, and try to pair that with their product, the neutral stimulus. They don’t hire ugly girls to do Viagra commercials. Their hope is that we will learn to associate these positive feelings with their products, so that when we see a beer bottle, a car, chocolate, or even a soda can, we automatically feel aroused or some sort of emotion toward the object. This is like a form of subliminal messaging. Classical conditioning is also explored in different books, movies, and TV shows. For example, in Clockwork Orange, the violent main character named Alex undergoes a treatment in which he is injected with a drug to make him feel nauseous just as they sit him down to watch a number of violent videos. He thus learns to associate extreme nausea with violence, and so when he is later put in situations in which he would have formerly acted violently, he does not do so because of the negative associations he now has with violence. This is a form of classical conditioning called aversion therapy.
One last note on classical conditioning: often there are unintended side effects. For example, Pavlov noticed his dogs learned to salivate when they heard the tone of the bell because they knew that meant food was coming, but he also noticed they began to salivate when they heard footsteps (because the food was also always accompanied by footsteps of his assistants walking into the room), and when they saw white lab coats (because that’s what their feeders wore). Similarly, in Clockwork Orange, during the violent videos that Alex was forced to watch while feeling nauseous, Beethoven was playing in the background. Thus, not only did Alex learn to associate nausea with violence, but he also learned to associate it with Beethoven. Doesn’t happen in real life you say! What is your association with steel drums or Reggae? Heck, just the mention has me salivating for some Jerk Chicken and a Bahama Mama.
So let’s bring it into police psychology. Ever have an officer say they just had a bad feeling about a situation they watched across the street while in a restaurant? It’s most likely conditioned in them by a bad situation they were in before. Or how about a cop associating the treatment they got from their spouse to the way they were treated on the streets by some bad guys? All emotional reactions connected to classical conditioning and as someone working in police psychology or if you are an officer yourself, you have to be aware of it. Time to take an inventory to make sure the classical conditioning in your life doesn’t make you puke to a good thing like a Moonlight Sonata (Beethoven).