It is quite normal for anyone to have fear of certain things; be it spiders, rodents, mathematics, or a particular teacher. These things happens. It is quite legitimate to be acceptant about some of your nightmares – everyone is entitle to have a few frights. It would be of interest to know how they come about. Is it averseness, an intuition; something that grows through experiences and more or less the result of implicit learning? Or, alternatively, are they acquired through social interaction, like in: Your friend saying: ‘ Arghh!!:, your mother’s warning: Don’t ..! (1) There is definitely survival value in timely and relevantly placed verbal instructions that will enable you to prepare yourself to deal with anxiety. Better than to get your fingers burned. Some might say it is always better to get the real experience of fear in order to learn. But others trust more the cognitive control exerted by a well placed warning. In behaviorist terms one could ask; does a conditioned stimulus needs to be aligned (contingent) with an unconditioned stimulus?; in plain terms: “ can a warning be enough”.
It was experimented in a study on fear conditioning whether verbal instructions would be sufficient to only to warn and prepare someone or that indeed a fear experience needs to be elicited. Participants in the study got warning instructions, accompanied or not with a small electric shock to “ learn” when looking at certain animals (snake, rat, spider, butterfly). It turned out that selective learning was most effective when not coupled with an electric shock. The effect was resistant to extinction, so, it remained intact. The authors interpret this in that warnings help to create a bias to expect aversive effects which can be maintained over a long period when occasional warnings are reinstated.
Teachers, parents warn all the time. It looks in vain most of the time to the effect that stronger methods are considered (2). But not necessarily, according to the study. In their words, the expectancy bias for fear return must be taken into account. Or in other words: you cannot make-up a warning; a cautioning must be realistic and truthful in order to be educative.
Can prepared fear conditioning result from verbal instructions? Gaëtan Mertens,, An K. Raesa,, Jan De Houwer. Learning & Motivation, 53(2016), 7-23.