The no real threat to society (Gerrig 2013:

The
aim of this document is to explain how phobias occur by applying principles of
behaviourism and its concepts of classical and operant conditioning and social
learning theory. Furthermore, the document will also critically evaluate these
concepts in the context of the resulting phenomenon.  It will also touch on the processes adopted in
practice, in the treatment of phobias.

A
phobia can be described as an irrational and constant fear of an object,
situation or activity that otherwise poses no real threat to society (Gerrig
2013: 393-394).  While fear is favoured
by evolution (Ohman and Mineka 2001:483), a phobia – its extreme form, if
acquired by an individual, interferes with his or her daily interactions,
routines and actions causing discomfort and a persistent sense of unease. Its
existence has therefore prompted several studies by psychologists and scholars
over the years and can be traced back to the experiments conducted by
behaviourists Watson and Rayner (1920) on the conditioning of fear in an
11-month-old child, Albert.

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In
this experiment Albert was made to fear a white rat, he previously attempted to
play with, when presented.  This was
achieved by pairing the white rat’s appearance with an unpleasant sound that
caused distress in the child.  The
continued presentation of this previously neutral stimulus paired with an
unconditioned stimulus (the unpleasant sound) caused Albert to associate the
sound with the white rat.  As observed
later, Albert also developed a fear for all furry objects – thus reasserting
the phenomenon of generalization, first discovered by Pavlov, in his
experiments with dogs while studying digestive glands.

Recent
studies involving patients undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer were given
a specific flavoured drink when they went for therapy.  After a number of instances in which the
drink was offered at the chemotherapy sessions the women developed sickness and
nausea at the sight of it (Jacobsen et al 1995) This form of anxiety
experienced by a considerable number of individuals who have phobias can be
traced back to a traumatic experience that initially formed their conditioning
(Mineka and Zinbarg 2006)

 In 1947 Robert Mowrer claimed that although
classical conditioning explained the acquisition of phobias, it didn’t delve in
to why they persisted. Hence his presentation of The Two Factor Theory.  The Theory aimed to explain the possibility
of a phobia persisting after the tie between the conditioned stimuli and unconditioned
stimuli is broken and no longer elicited the conditioned response (Hull 1943;
Mowrer 1960 1989:12).

The
two-factor theory was built on the basis that if an organism were to encounter
an unpleasant stimulus in its environment and associated it with other neutral
stimuli, it induced a fear response (this, rings true to the basic principle of
classical conditioning) and in actively avoiding these aversive stimuli an
organism’s fear is negatively reinforced.  This latter condition is acquired through a
process called avoidance conditioning, which Mowrer discovered in his
experiments with rats involving a buzzer and electric shock.

In
this experiment, rats got an electric shock almost simultaneously after hearing
a buzzer (unconditioned stimulus).  This
served as a waring trigger (stimulus) to the rats and caused anxiety and fear –
an emotional response.  After a few
pairings as such, the rats began to associate the sound of the buzzer with the
pain of electric shock and began to fear the buzzer through association.  At this point however, Mowrer observed that
the rats tended to avoid the prospect of pain and anxiety by jumping over the
barrier and escaping the situation all together. The rats’ behaviour was an
indicator of the fact that negative reinforcement had taken place and
subsequently avoidance conditioning. 

To
further illustrate this point, take the example of a child who while playing
hide and seek got locked in a cupboard by accident.  The situation caused significant distress
eliciting a condition of being suffocated due to the confinement of the space
he was in. The emotional response when coupled with the aversive situation of
being locked up in a confined space may cause generalization of the situation
in the form of manifesting itself in elevators, closed rooms and any situation
that the child feels confined in.  As a
form of avoidance, the child will grow up to stay away from any situation that
elicits this feeling of being smothered – he/she will stick to taking the
stairs as opposed to taking the lift on any occasion the circumstance presents
itself.

The
key point to note in these examples is that by avoiding these conditioned
stimuli (closed spaces) the individual also keeps him/herself from any form of
reality testing (Mowrer 1960) and therein lies the reason as to why the phobia
persists.  The boy never gave himself an
opportunity to test whether there was an actual danger/threat awaiting him in
the elevator; hence his fear was negatively reinforced by a reduction of fear
even though the initially conditioned stimuli was not present.

Although
fear acquisition can be explained by using basic classical conditioning
principles it also connotates that the conditioning requires direct contact to
be made with the aversive stimuli.  This
may not always be the case.

In
most organic situations, behaviour patterns tend to be exhibited as a form of
imitation of a model based on observation.  For example, a child learns to fear fireworks
as a result of observing his older sibling getting himself injured in the
process of setting them off. The child knows by observation that in order to
avoid getting injured, the fireworks must be administered with caution or, to
stay away from them altogether as a mechanism to avoid getting burned or harmed
in any way.  Be it in a
positive/constructive context or an unconstructive one, the child’s behaviour
is modified as a result of learning through observation.

The
ability to learn through observation was illustrated by Albert Bandura’s
laboratory experiments on observing and imitating aggressive behaviour.  The experiment known as the BoBo doll
experiment monitored a group of children observing adults behave aggressively
towards a BoBo doll that was placed in the room, alongside other toys and found
that they tended to imitate the aggressive behaviour they had observed more
persistently, as opposed to the group of children who had been in a controlled
setting where the doll was treated as just another toy.

In
the context of fear learning specifically, Mineka’s study of Rhesus Monkey
behaviour in relation to snakes revealed that the monkeys raised in a
laboratory setting showed no fear towards snakes (initially; and thus, proving
that the fear was not innate).  On
observing monkeys in the wild react fearfully towards snakes the laboratory
monkeys imitated/displayed a similar fear reaction when exposed to snakes from
that point on (Ohman and Mineka 2001). 

Further
studies conducted on the neural systems of social fear transmission revealed
that the amygdala was triggered in an observer exposed to the discomfiture or
pain inflicted on another due to the unfavourable prospect of being subjected
to the same aversive condition themselves.  In an experiment conducted to prove this
occurrence, a group of male participants were made to watch a movie in which an
electric shock was administered to an individual and was later informed that
they too were to be subjected to the same shock administration.  Their subsequent brain activity was monitored
with the use of MRI to ascertain the response of the amygdala to the
instructions of the next phase of the study. It was observed that the amygdala
responded to the fear of the participants in the same way as it did in
classical fear conditioning (Olsson, Nearing, and Phelps 2007)

On evaluating the
behaviourist perspective on understanding phobias, we’re presented with both
affirmative and refutable criteria.  For
instance, it is plausible to state that social learning theory holds
credibility since individuals imitate influential models.  Take the relationship between a child and its
immediate family members for example – the child will imitate and develop an
irrational fear towards a stimulus if it observes one of its models exhibit the
same.

Behaviourist
studies are also empirical.  Hence it
does hold scientific credibility to a greater degree as no biases are
presented, holding true to its deterministic view.  This very fact could also be refuted to say
that due to its deterministic view point it ignores important processes involving
cognition and natural selection.  For
instance, studies conducted on cynophobic individuals has indicated that one’s
peri-personal space plays a role in determining the levels of anxiety felt when
confronted with their fear is indicant of a higher level of cognition at play
in the influencing of the reinforcement of a phobia (Taffou and Viaud-Delmon
2014).  In considering natural selection
processes, the behaviourist belief that we’re born as blank slates and that all
behaviour is learned, does not explain evolutionary impacts on fear acquisition
and is notably flawed as it doesn’t give enough importance to processes where
genes, neural pathways and evolutionary adaption to survival are key in
understanding why some animals instinctually fear certain stimuli. It was, for
example, discovered in Ohman and Mineka’s studies on the preparedness to
learning, that some fears are more readily acquired than others owing to its
importance in evolutionary survival, such as the natural aversion to certain
reptiles.  The association between the
aversive stimuli and the emotional response it elicits is activated with no
conscious awareness or effort and is almost impossible to control. Backward
masking techniques used by Ohman in his experiments involving snakes and
spiders further confirmed this fact (Ohman and Mineka 2001).

There
is also a possibility, according to psychodynamics for instance, that a memory
of an unpleasant or threatening nature may have been repressed as a defence
mechanism.  This could result in a phobia
however, as conditioning to avoid the harmful stimulus may have taken place on
an unconscious level.  This possibility
is ruled out in a behaviouristic context because it can’t be observed first
hand.

There
have also been several concerns raised on the ethicality of the experiments
conducted in pursuit of obtaining certain findings – the case of Little Albert
is one that stands out in this respect.  Because
of the nature of the subject used in this experiment the results it yielded
have been challenged by scholars on several levels.

The
route to understanding phobias is therefore far more complex than that which
can be understood by a behaviouristic perspective alone.  It requires a more dynamic approach; one that
takes in to account the influence of cognition and biological/evolutionary
predisposition.

Although
the principles of behaviourism may have its flaws, it is also one of the key
applications used in the treatment of phobias. 
Just as behaviour is learned through forms of conditioning and
reinforcement the same process can be used to change behaviour that is
disruptive to oneself or others. 

Counterconditioning
is one such approach used in treating patients with phobias.  This technique primarily focuses on replacing
an emotion which causes fear or anxiety in relation to an object or situation,
with another more positive response.  In
Mary Cover Jones’s experiment with little Peter (1896), we see how Peter’s
irrational fear of rabbits was addressed by gradual introduction of its presence
when he was being fed.  Over a course of
time, the rabbit was placed closer to Peter’s proximity, until he eventually
played with it one day instead of getting frightened by its presence (Jones
1896 1924:127 -128).

This
basic discovery of counterconditioning laid the foundation for therapies such
as systematic desensitization, flooding and implosion (Gerrig 2013: 426).

In
systematic desensitization therapy the patient is taught how to relax and while
in that relaxed state a gradual confrontation of the feared stimulus, takes
place.  The patient’s input in the form
of ranking his/her anxiety in relation to situations/stimuli, is important here
because while in a relaxed state the patient will be requested to visualize
each of these ranked states, beginning from the one that induces the least fear
to the most, gradually working towards major confrontation.

Flooding,
is less time-consuming technique used in treating phobias.  Here, with the patient’s consent, he/she is
put directly in a situation to confront the occurring phobia. Houlihan et al (1993)
used this technique to cure a collage aged young man of his fear of balloons.  As part of therapy he was made to pop balloons
and after three sessions he could pop close to 115 balloons without any display
of fear or anxiety. Also, using virtual reality to create the same
situation/experience as opposed to physical immersion is used to treat phobias
such as Aerophobia (Powers and Emmelkamp 2008).

Behavioural
therapies also include the application of Social Learning principles in the
form of imitation of models, to enforce learning of desired responses.  In sessions where this technique is used,
therapists model the desired behaviour towards a stimulus, aversive to the
patient.  For example, in a case similar
to that of little Peter, assume that the therapist attempts to model the
behaviour of petting the rabbit and encouraging the patient to observe and
imitate the same.  This is a gradual
acquaintance procedure and should the patient develop anxiety at any point, the
stimulus will be taken away and reintroduced at a point where the patient felt
comfortable dealing with it.

The
requirements for this form of therapy, namely the presence of the aversive
stimuli, is as effective when represented symbolically as it has been in
physical settings.  In this setting
patients have control over the regulation of their exposure with the aversive
stimuli. Bandura’s (1982) theory on self-efficacy comes in to play here and
determines how far the patient is willing to go to achieve positive results as
no therapeutic facilitation is involved in this process.  This form of therapy has yielded the most
success in the treatment of phobias from a behaviouristic perspective, to date.

In
conclusion, we can say that the behaviourists’ rigor in the pursuit of
identifying the causes of a phenomenon like a phobia, has contributed immensely
to the understanding and subsequent treatment of it.  Even though there are gaps in the approach
itself, like the inability to explain why not all individuals who have had
traumatic experiences develop phobias for instance, the foundation, for further
study of this occurrence was established by the behaviourists.  Furthermore, the treatment of phobias with
the use of behavioural techniques has been deemed successful as evidenced in
this write up.  It is however
acknowledged that perhaps cognitive factors play a larger role in this process
and so is being reviewed as an alternative approach in determining better
methods of the treatment procedures.

Phobias
as stated at the beginning of this exercise debilitates an individual’s ability
to integrate with his surroundings successfully and is unfortunately a
condition that’s still very much at large in society and research to understand
it fully and thereby develop and refine the treatment of it, is an on-going
investment of psychologists of our time.