Meatloaf severely damaged my relationship with my mother. When I was eight, my mother made meatloaf. It was one of her first times being in charge of dinner, as my grandmother had recently passed away. She served my sister and I, and then busied herself with my youngest sibling, still a babe in arms. My other sister and I each had a taste of the meatloaf, and then pushed it away. As my mother had grown up with a mother that lived during the great depression, the sight of wasted food infuriated her. She decreed that neither of us could leave the table until we had finished our meatloaf.
Two hours later, we had both declared defeat and consumed the meatloaf. It was only then that my mother realized she had yet to eat, and helped herself to the meatloaf. This is when she discovered that the meat had apparently gone off. My sister and I were both sick for over a week afterward. To this day, I cannot stomach the thought of eating meatloaf. I even dumped a perfectly nice young man after a first date at a restaurant in which he ordered meatloaf.
“In differential Pavlovian fear conditioning, one previously neutral conditional stimulus (CS) can come to elicit a conditional response (CR) through repeated pairing with an aversive unconditional stimulus (UCS)” (Schultz & Helmstetter, 2010, 495).
Neither my sister nor myself had ever before experienced eating anything that would give us food poisoning. At this point in our young lives, we trusted our mother to take care of us and look out for our best interests. It simply didn’t occur to us not to try and eat what she put in front of us. The conditioning was reinforced by several truly spectacular culinary disasters perpetrated by my mother, which included both repeated visits from the fire department and being on a first name basis with the entire staff of a pizza delivery company. A home-cooked meal was something to be feared rather than cherished, and we often thought our friends odd when they seemed eager to get home to dinner.
“Consequences are the heart of operant conditioning” (Carpenter & Huffman, 2010). My sisters and I survived by learning to cook at an early age. Friends and relatives however, quickly learned to ask who had cooked a meal before setting down to eat. My mother’s food could be deceptive, as it resembled ours in presentation. The difference often did not manifest until the first few bites were taken, or the digestive issues made themselves known.
“Cue learning has been investigated extensively in research on cognitive learning models. These models characterize how people associate cues with particular responses or outcomes (e.g., how people learn through experience that a particular set of symptoms usually signals coming down with a cold or that opening a certain computer program leads to a frozen screen). Such models conceptualize learning as the strengthening of associations between predictive cues (e.g., the series of computerized tasks that preceded the crash) and outcomes over time and the weakening of associations between nonpredictive cues (e.g., the color of shirt worn that morning) and outcomes.”(Collins, Percy, Smith, & Kruschke, 2011, 968)
Now that I have a place of my own, I rarely even let my mother fix so much as a glass of water in my kitchen. I have observed that my mother is not simply a bad cook; she is a downright dangerous cook. On four separate occasions, I have witnessed my otherwise intelligent mother leave a pan of grease unattended on a lit stove until it burst into flames. My mother has never admitted her inability to cook, and likes to think she’s being helpful if she cooks. If I so much as see my mother heading into the kitchen, I take that as my cue to distract and redirect her, and have thus saved myself from an untold number of disasters.
It would have been preferable to learn purely through cognitive social conditioning. Our neighbors have watched the fire department and ambulance show up on multiple occasions and been duly warned. They have always declined to join us for meals. They are the lucky ones, for their taste buds and digestive systems have never staged a full-scale revolt. The consequences of learning by classical conditioning can be life-long, as evidenced by my aversion to meatloaf that has spanned decades. Guests that were not prior informed or that doubted the validity of the warnings had to learn by trial and error, a rough lesson but one quickly learned and regularly reinforced.
Carpenter, S. and Huffman, K. (2010). Visualizing Psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Collins, E. C., Percy, E. J., Smith, E. R., & Kruschke, J. K. (2011). Integrating advice and experience: Learning and decision making with social and nonsocial cues. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(6), 967-982. doi:10.1037/a0022982
Schultz, D. H., & Helmstetter, F. J. (2010). Classical conditioning of autonomic fear responses is independent of contingency awareness. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 36(4), 495-500. doi:10.1037/a0020263
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