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Classical Conditioning and The Treatment of Phobias

A look into the use of Classical Conditioning within psychology when creating and curing phobias.

Applying classical conditioning to phobias.

Classical conditioning is learning through association, meaning that, a conditioned response can be gained through making the subject associate a UCS with a response.

This can be used to make subjects fear a neutral stimulus. A good example of this would be Watson and Rayner’s ‘Little Albert’ study, conducted in 1920.

They wanted to condition a toddler, called Albert, into developing a phobia of white rats through classical conditioning, or learning through association. If they could get Albert to associate a rat with pain or fear, then a phobia would develop, meaning he had learnt through association to fear the rat.

To begin, they allowed Albert to play with the white rat happily, he had not yet learnt to fear white rats, and therefore no negative response was observed by Watson and Rayner. They then had to condition Albert to become scared of the rat through association, making him associate the rat with negative feelings, such as anxiety or fear.

Albert began to reach out to the rat, however, when he touched it the researches would strike a suspended metal bar with a hammer, creating a loud noise which, understandingly, upset Albert and made him cry and appear obviously distressed. After a repeated pairing with the touching of the neutral stimulus (which is now a conditioned stimulus) and the unconditioned stimulus of the loud noise, Albert began to associate the touching of the rat with a loud, distressing noise. Subsequently, when the rat was placed near Albert, he became visually distressed, began crying and tried to move away from the rat. This is because Albert was conditioned to associate the rat with fear.

This phobia of rats that Albert developed was later generalised to include phobias of cotton wool and Santa’s beard. This can show how people can easily associate an initial phobia, and this can subsequently spread to other things that represent a phobia.

An example of this outside of a laboratory experiment is learning that wasps sting if aggravated. A child learns through association that wasp’s sting, if they were stung at a young age, and subsequently, this phobia often spreads to all stinging insects, such as bees, even if they weren’t the cause of the initial pain.

                               How can we apply this to treating phobias?

If a phobia is caused by conditioning or learning through association, a phobia should be able to be cured by using principles based around conditioning. There are two ways that a phobia should be able to dissipate through the use of conditioning principles.

You could try and re-condition someone’s response to the cause of the phobia, for example, conditioning someone with arachnophobia to associate a spider with a positive thought rather than a negative thought. This would probably only work on a young child that hasn’t experienced a phobia for an extended period of time. It would involve positively reinforcing the spider’s presence, such as rewarding the subject with sweets if they are a child, soon they will learn to associate a spider with sweets, meaning that the phobia should be overcome.

Studies have shown that people are born with a in-built reaction to some stimuli that may be threatening to a humans existence. For example, Steligman tried to cause phobias in people of either flowers or snakes, he found that a phobia could be caused by showing a picture of a snake, and giving a small electrical shock, however a far larger electrical shock was required to give the subjects a phobia of flowers. This shows that we are born with a pre-defined way of acting around certain stimuli, suggesting that a phobia of a dangerous animal could actually be an unconditioned response rather than a learned response. However, the phobia of a poisonous snake is understandable, however a phobia of all snakes is not understandable, showing that phobias are over-generalised to all snakes for example.

The most successful way of treating phobias is through behavioural therapy. The subject would slowly be introduced to the cause of the phobia in a controlled and gradual way. Such as the introduction slowly of non poisonous snakes that would slowly stop the subject suffering from a broad phobia of snakes. This would eventually cause extinction of the conditioned response to occur, meaning the subject would be cured of the phobia of all snakes.

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