being spooked This being the Halloween season and all, it seems appropriate to bring up the subject of being spooked. Someone is said to be spooked by a circumstance or situation when they exhibit fear. The person is said to be afraid. Behaviorally, being spooked by something involves a hesitancy to engage whatever it is that is responsible for the spooking, that is, escaping or avoiding the thing responsible for the spooking.  Being spooked is grounded in either experience or the thought of undergoing certain experiences. It is a pretty common reaction for many people to certain things or other people. Some extremes of being spooked by things or thoughts of things can be described as phobic reactions. Kids can be spooked by bullies and grown-ups can be spooked by bully co-workers or bosses. In both examples, the spooking can be the result of a bad encounter with the person who engages in spooking (intentionally or not), the anticipation of such an encounter, or both.

I can study spooking in the laboratory in the following way. I first maintain key pecking of a pigeon by rewarding it occasionally so that I get a nice, steady rate of, say, 40 or 50 key pecks a minute. I do this in pigeonthe presence of a green-colored light located behind the key. Next, from time to time, say on average about once every 5 minutes, I change the color of the key light from green to red for 30 seconds, at the end of which the light turns green again. The pigeon learns to respond in red like it does in green, because it also can earn food in the presence of the red light. This green to red to green cycle then repeats several times per daily training session. If, after training is complete and the pigeon responds the same in red and green, I now end each 30-s red light period, just before it turns back to green, with a 50 millisecond electric shock, guess what happens to responding in red? It is disrupted. In fact, the pigeon may respond only a third or a fourth as fast in red as it does in green, even though it still gets food for pecking in red. Watch the pigeon and you are likely to see a lot of emotional behavior (e.g., cooing, agitated movement, swiping its wing out at the panel containing the key) that ends as soon as the shock occurs and the green light is re-presented. This disruption is technically called conditioned suppression, but we can as easily describe it as a case of the pigeon being spooked. 

Here’s another interesting thing.  Once conditioned suppression is established, other colored lights that are various shades of red will elicit similar “spooking” of responding. The more similar the color is to the original red light, the more likely is spooking to the stimulus to occur. 

facing fears at workConditioned suppression can help explain why we react as we do in certain situations. Short of sticking one’s finger in an electrical outlet, unlike the pigeon in our example, we rarely encounter electrical shock. We do, however, encounter bullies at school and bad bosses at work. For children and workers, the mere presence of their nemeses is sufficient to elicit a similar conditioned suppression reaction to that shown by the pigeon to the red light. Not only that, but other people who resemble those nemeses, either physically or behaviorally, may elicit a similar response to that controlled by the nemesis, just a shades of red affect the pigeon’s keypecking. With both pigeons and people, escaping from the red light or its equivalent is reinforced as the potential aversive event as well as the stimulus goes away.

The next time something or someone spooks you, see if your behavior doesn’t fit into the conditioned suppression model. It may not make your reaction any less intense, but it will at least help explain why you are reacting as you do.

face your fearsWhat to do about being spooked is not a simple matter. We can eliminate conditioned suppression by a pigeon by turning off the shock at the end of the red light. Humans don’t always have this luxury, and, indeed, escape or avoidance is not necessarily the best long-term solution. If the response is due to imagined events that have not happened, sometimes, but not always, spooking can be eliminated by confronting an imaginary fear and finding out it isn’t nearly as aversive as was imagined. Some therapists have had success in teaching people to confront these imagined events in various ways. For many people and many real and imaginary fears, however, the situation is far more complicated and requires the consultation of a professional who can help the person develop tools to overcome such conditioned suppression. 

If the response is due to real threat, pay attention to it and work with others to remove it from harming you, your child in a bullying school setting, or from harming other people in your work environment or elsewhere. Spooking events and their accompanying circumstances (red lights in our example above) should not be ignored. In the workplace, for example, many things can elicit threat, fear, and dread. Workplace rules, procedures and expectations can spook anyone, and lead to emotional behavior and avoidance, causing misery and perhaps even errors of actions and unsafe practices. Such events where you do not feel like you can speak up to management, whether true or not, can lead to a lack of change in conditions that could be made better. Look into it if this conditioned suppression response applies to you or those you care about. Talk to others about how to address such concerns.  Often small steps can help you change an aversive environment in significant ways. Our colleagues at Aubrey Daniels International have broad experience in helping to reduce threat and fear in the workplace. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.