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Analysis of Phobias Based on a Pavlovian Theory: Descriptive Essay

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A phobia is defined as “a persistent, irrational fear of an object, event, activity, or situation called a phobic stimulus, resulting in a compelling desire to avoid it” [1]. Although we understand what phobias are, the reasons for their acquisition are a subject of debate. Many psychologists have presented theories as to why phobias develop. Some psychologists believe they develop on a biological basis, whereas Freud presented a theory in relation to the three stages of conscience, or the “id, ego and superego”. The most compelling theory however is that phobias are learned through a process called classical conditioning, pioneered by Ivan Pavlov.

Classical conditioning is a process of learning “ through which an initially neutral stimulus (1), such as the ticking of a metronome, comes to elicit a particular response, such as salivation, as a consequence of being paired repeatedly with an unconditioned stimulus, such as food”. [1]

With phobias, for example, people may associate the presence of a dog (US) with fear (CR) after being bit. Many studies have been conducted to apply classical conditioning to phobias, particularly Watson and Rayner’s paper entitled “conditioned emotional reaction” in 1920, which is a notable example of unethical experimentation in psychology. A white rat was presented to a child who, in typical child-like nature, reacted positively and seemed to enjoy its presence. The researchers then presented the white rat to the child once more and struck an iron bar, producing a loud and startling noise that caused the baby to become distressed. The process was repeated several times until eventually, the baby would become extremely distressed even being in presence of the white rat. This concept is the fundamental basis for many phobias. The child learned to associate the fear induced by the sound of the iron bar with the presence of the white rat, despite the rat not evoking that kind of a response prior to the experiment. [4]

Although the findings of this study are quite remarkable, they have not gone unchallenged. Although response of fear was elicited, it is unlikely that it lasted a lifetime as a phobia. Watson did emphasize the necessity to periodically “freshen the reaction”. This implies that although a conditioned response was attained, over time the response will have been reduced greatly or have completely vanished. This weakening of the conditioned response is known as extinction. Extinction is defined as “The diminution in the strength or frequency of a conditioned response as a result of its having been elicited repeatedly without reinforcement” [1]. Despite this inadequacy, the theory that phobias are acquired through conditioning is popular due to its simplicity.

A pavlovian theory doesn’t exclusively refer to classical conditioning, however. In relation to the development of phobias, there is observational learning also referred to as vicarious conditioning. Vicarious conditioning is defined as “the learning of various attitudes, feelings, beliefs, and emotions, not through direct exposure to a stimulus, but through observing how others react to it” [1]. This form of conditioning is commonly observed in children who often learn vicariously through their parents. For example, when a child sees a parent figure licking their finger before turning a page, they often mimic this behavior without understanding why and oftentimes do it incorrectly.

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In relation to phobias, scientists conducted a study [2] where one group of lab-reared monkeys and another group of wild monkeys were placed in a similar environment and were presented with food and a wild snake. In order to reach the food, the monkeys would have to reach past the snake which was placed inside a clear box. The wild monkeys were extremely distressed by the presence of the snake and demonstrated a great reluctance to reach for the food. The lab-reared monkeys however reacted quite indifferently and liberally reached for the food. The lab-reared monkeys were then shown the distressed responses of the wild monkeys. Despite their previous indifference, they subsequently developed a fearful response to the wild snake. This acquired fear remained for 3 months but gradually lessened due to the process of extinction. The studies demonstrate overall that fears can be acquired and do not have to be conditioned. In relation to humans, a child may acquire a fear due to their parents or other prominent figures eliciting a fearful response to a stimulus.

Although Pavlov’s theories are commonly used to explain the acquisition of phobias, his theory of conditioning is also commonly used to treat them in a process called systematic desensitization, which is defined as a behavior modification technique, used especially in treating phobias, in which panic or other undesirable emotional response to a given stimulus is reduced or extinguished, especially by repeated exposure to that stimulus”[1]. The goal of the therapy is to extinguish the negative response of the phobia and to instead substitute a positive response using counter conditioning.

The procedure itself is split into three phases. The patient is taught breathing techniques or meditation in order to induce a feeling of relaxation. The logic behind this is that the relaxation cancels out the fear induced by the phobia as the two feelings are incompatible i.e. only one can be experienced at any given time. The patient in question then writes a fear hierarchy ranking certain stimuli from the least fear-inducing to the most fear-inducing. The patient then imagines the listed stimuli starting from the least fear-inducing and working upward to the most fear-inducing. The goal of the procedure is that the patient will learn to associate the stimuli with a feeling of relaxation (CR) instead of fear (UR). It is vital that the procedure is performed gradually.

Joseph Wolpe, a psychologist who specialized in behavioral therapy utilized this form of therapy quite often in his work. He had moderate success with this method in treating obsessional patients, achieving a success rate of 7 out of 10. For example, a boy reportedly grew obsessed with not contaminating others after urinating and would spend hours compulsively showering and scrubbing his genitalia. In a lengthy process spanning over 5 months, Wolpe successfully desensitized the obsessional boy to the presence of urine. The case report overall gives “an indication of the time, patience, and ingenuity that behavior therapy can demand”.[3]

This form of therapy has many flaws, however. The procedure relies on the patient’s ability to vividly picture the fearful stimulus in their head. It is also, as outlined above, an extremely slow and grueling process with success not always being guaranteed. Systematic desensitization is also extremely limited in the phobias it can treat. Although it can successfully treat fears of objects or situations, it may not treat disorders such as schizophrenia as effectively. This can lead to therapists using SD in unsuitable situations. For example, someone with a fear of public speaking may benefit more from being taught social skills rather than being desensitized to the experience itself.

  1. Colman, A. M. (2015). A dictionary of psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. (Joslin et al.,1964; Mineka, Davidson, Cook, & Keir, 1984; Mineka, Keir, & Price, 1980; Murray & King, 1973)
  3. Wolpe, J. (1964). Behavior therapy in complex neurotic states. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 110(464), 28-34.
  4. Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1-14.

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Analysis of Phobias Based on a Pavlovian Theory: Descriptive Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
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