Phobias: A Fear of Fear

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Phobias: A Fear of Fear

I was afraid of small spaces and I was afraid of the tree outside my window, and I had all these phobias. I think many kids have those phobias, but I probably had more than most. (Steven Spielberg)

I have three phobias ... I hate going to bed, getting up and hate being alone. (Tallulah Bankhead)

A phobia is an irrational fear that produces a strong avoidance of the feared subject, activity or situation. Generally phobias are categorized into three areas: fear of animate objects (spiders, snakes), fear of inanimate objects (needles, rubber) and fear of ambiguous situations (heights, darkness and open spaces). Interestingly one of the most common phobias is speaking in public.

Some phobias are well known and others very rare. They can have a very dramatic impact on people’s lives. Thus the fairly common fear of flying essentially means that people have to travel by much slower, possibly more expensive, means to get to their destination. However, the good news is that psychologists say that of all the psychological problems, phobia is probably the most easy to cure.

The two most well-known behavioural methods are flooding and desensitization. Consider a fear of birds. The flooding method might involve taking a phobic person to a bird sanctuary or to a room with many caged birds. They would of course be flooded with anxiety but hopefully learn to cope with it, seeing there is no danger. The desensitization method involves exposing people to birds slowly and cautiously so that they learn to cope with their fear. Hence they might be first shown pictures of small birds, then taken into a big room with an attractive caged bird in the far corner. Both methods work well.

Phobias are very common: social phobia affects approximately 10 per cent of adults and specific phobias affect a similar number. People with severe forms of a phobia can experience panic attacks that include feelings of intense, overwhelming terror accompanied by symptoms such as sweating, shortness of breath or faintness. They can also get to the point where they begin to disrupt the individual’s life, interfering with work or their social relationships. The individual may resort to extreme measures to avoid the source of the phobia, with the possibility of isolating themselves and creating more problems in their ability to function.

There are probably six quite distinct academic viewpoints on the aetiology of phobia.

1 The Behavioural viewpoint argues that phobias develop after a frightening experience that can occur at any time. Further, they can be learned by observing others, particularly family members. Phobias about seemingly non-traumatic objects and situations develop because they are associated with traumatic events. Evolutionary pressure partly determines what objects and events are likely to cause phobia because they are (or were) often life threatening.

2 The Psychoanalytic viewpoint is that phobias, like so much else, originate in early childhood experience. Particular phobias have symbolic meanings. Thus, proto-typically the fear of snakes is a facade for a real fear of unconscious sexual feelings towards inappropriate others. Because it is easier to avoid snakes than sexual impulse, a snake phobia develops.

3 The Genetic viewpoint stresses the evidence that because phobias ’run in families’ they are transmitted genetically. Some argue that because genes (in part) determine personality (i.e., neurosis) they directly affect the likelihood of the development of phobia.

4 The Cultural viewpoint, like the behavioural approach, stresses learning, but of a societal rather than an individual nature. Thus Italians, who are more likely to report or exaggerate personal fear and anxiety, report more phobia than the stoical British, whose cultural emotional repression and ’stiff upper-lippedness’ makes them much less likely to report phobia.

5 The Biochemical viewpoint stresses that individual differences in brain chemistry make certain people more susceptible than others. Thus, if two people are exposed to the same anxiety-provoking experience, it is quite possible that only one would become phobic.

6 The Cognitive viewpoint suggests that what leads a person to develop a phobia after a particular experience is the way he or she cognitively interprets the situation. Thus, the perception of the likelihood of harm from the object may act to increase the anxiety and, hence, the probability of phobia.

Clearly, these six viewpoints on the aetiology of phobia are linked. The behavioural, cultural and cognitive viewpoints are certainly not contradictory, although they do emphasize rather different features of the process. Similarly, the genetic and biochemical approaches are linked by a stress on physiological mechanisms. However, the behavioural, psychoanalytic and cognitive approaches appear to have dominated in the treatment of phobia. The behavioural approach often advocates systematic desensitization, implosive therapy/flooding or anxiety management training. Psychoanalysts would recommend free association and dream analysis, while cognitive psychologists would recommend attribution theory and other cognitive re-evaluation therapies.


The Little Albert Experiment demonstrates how phobias are learnt, as opposed to being innate. Phobias are learnt through a process known as classical conditioning. Watson and Rayner (1920) conducted an experiment with a nine-month-old infant. They tested his reactions to various stimuli. The infant was shown a white rabbit, a monkey, a rabbit and various masks. First, the infant displayed no fear when shown the stimuli. Then the psychologists introduced a loud bang from a hammer being struck against a steel bar behind his head. This loud bang caused the infant to burst into tears.

The experiment progressed to the infant only being shown a white rat and then seconds later the loud bang. This was done several times over several weeks, each time with the infant bursting into tears at the loud bang. The result of this was that the infant would begin to exhibit signs of distress when presented with the white rat, he would cry and attempt to crawl away. Further, in addition to the phobia of the white rat, the infant also developed phobias which shared similar characteristics to the rat, such as, a family dog, fur coat, Father Christmas mask and cotton wool. This suggests that while people can learn to cope with a phobia, it may still evoke latent reactions in the individual should they see a similar stimulus. Two points are worth making. First, it is very unlikely that this study would get through the ethics committee today. Second, just as it was possible to induce a phobia in Little Albert, so it was possible to cure him of it.


Watson, J.B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), pp. 1—14.