What Causes People to Have Phobias

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Phobias are defined as ‘an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal’. There have been many theories as to why phobias develop such as the cognitive, evolutionary and biological theories. One specific theory is the behavioural theory. This theory states that we can learn behaviours/phobias through the aspects of classical conditioning, learning through association, and vicarious learning, where we learn from observing others. It also states that as phobias are learned, they can also be unlearned which forms the basis of most treatments.

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Classical conditioning is concerned with learning by the idea of association. The fear response, involved with a phobia, is merely conditioned to a neutral stimulus when it is paired with a traumatic event. Evidence for this idea comes from a study involving a young boy called Albert, who Watson & Rayner were able to condition to be scared of a white rat. They did this by pairing the rat (neutral stimulus) with a loud noise (that created a fear response from Albert). Eventually, once the rat was presented on its own, it created the fear response with the loud noise not present. The conclusion was that, indeed, a fear response can be conditioned (associated) with a neutral stimulus. Therefore, there must be some effectiveness of classical conditioning in explaining how phobias are acquired as long as there is an unpleasant event along with it.

Vicarious conditioning, on the other hand, is the process of learning through observing others. We see someone else experiencing a distressing reaction to an object and then obtain that reaction ourselves. Mineka and Zinbarg noticed this sort of reaction within a boy who witnessed his grandfather die. During his grandfather’s death, his grandfather was vomiting. After witnessing the event, the boy obtained a fear of vomiting. Observation of death (distress) and vomiting at the same time, resulted in an association of distress with vomiting. This real-life example demonstrates the effectiveness of vicarious conditioning in explaining the acquisition of phobias.

Although both classical and vicarious conditioning are effective somewhat in explaining the acquisition of phobias, both are susceptible to criticisms about not being full explanations. According to the conditioning theories, everyone learns in the same way, therefore, everyone must be able to learn the same phobias. However, some people undergoing traumas and witnessing other’s traumas don’t actually develop a phobia. There are individual differences among people that make them less or more likely to acquire a phobia. One concept is that there are certain ‘risk factors’ that can make people more vulnerable, and there are certain ‘protective factors’ that can make people less vulnerable. If an event suddenly becomes traumatic, those with more experience of the event, when its pleasant, will be less likely to develop a phobia than those with less experience of the event. Those with more experience will be more comfortable and will not find the traumatic event as unpleasant. The certain exposure to a pleasant event can affect the likeliness of acquiring a phobia when the event becomes traumatic. This was shown by Ten Berge with dentist patients.

The behaviourist approach cannot also explain why we acquire some phobias to certain things easier than others. The better explanation for this, is that of evolutionary preparedness where we tend to easily associate different objects/things with unpleasant events due to the course of evolution via our ancestors. We easily associate these objects as, in the course of history, our ancestors have experienced unpleasant events with them. It gives us selective advantage so we avoid something that could be a threat to us. Conditioning explains how we acquire a phobia, however, it will be better to take into account the idea of this evolutionary preparedness to get a full understanding of why some phobias towards objects are easier than others to acquire.

In terms of behavioural treatments, they focus on trying to unlearn the phobia because as we can acquire a phobia through conditioning (learning), we must be able to unlearn it. One form of treatment is Systematic Desensitisation (SD). The aim of this treatment is to substitute a relaxation response in replace of the fear response of the phobia. The patient is taught relaxation techniques to practice, and then is asked to make an anxiety hierarchy of stimuli. This hierarchy is a list of stimuli from those that create the least anxiety to those that create the highest. For example, with arachnophobia (a fear of spiders) you’d possibly start with looking at a picture of a spider and end with holding the spider in your hands. With each stimulus, the patient uses the relaxation techniques. Once the patient is not afraid anymore (understand there is no danger), they’ll move onto the next stimuli. Using relaxation techniques enables the use of counter conditioning where the relaxation replaces the fear response, as you cannot experience relaxation and fear at the same time.

Evidence for the effectiveness of SD in treating specific phobias, i.e. intense fear of a particular object that is harmless, comes from a study involving arachnophobia patients. The study followed up patients who had undergone three 45-minute sessions of SD or a relaxation treatment which involved no exposure. SD patients were found to be less fearful after three and 33 months. 

Therefore, there is some effectiveness in the treatment of specific phobias, especially arachnophobia, through SD. The exposure being the key factor within the treatment. 

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