Behavioural theories of anxiety
Theories of anxiety
Anxiety is a learned response.
O. H. Mowrer
One of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology took place in London in 1920. Directing the experiment was the then-star of Anglo-American psychology, John Broadus Watson (1878—1958). Watson was the leader of behaviourism, an approach that would dominate academic psychology for much of the 20th century.
Behaviourism constituted a vigorous rejection of the academic psychology pioneered by Wilhelm Wundt (1832—1920) and William James (1842—1910) and of psychoanalysis, which had rapidly become the dominant approach in Europe to understanding and treating the mind and its disorders.
Behaviourism, as its name suggests, took as its subject the behaviour of humans and animals (it saw no fundamental difference between the two). Indeed, Watson argued that behaviour was the only appropriate subject for a genuinely scientific psychology to study. Thoughts, emotions, dreams — all were irrelevant. How could such phenomena be studied scientifically? In his ’behaviourist manifesto’ of 1913, Watson had written:
Psychology … is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science … Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behaviour.
For Watson and his followers, all behaviour had a simple explanation: we learn it. And this brings us back to that celebrated 1920 experiment. Starring opposite Watson in 1920 was an infant immortalized by Watson (together with his assistant and future wife Rosalie Rayner) as ’Albert B.’.
Albert B. was nine months old, the son of a wet nurse at London’s Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children. Watson and Rayner began by testing Albert’s reactions to a range of objects, including a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, cotton wool, and burning newspapers. Albert — who, according to the psychologists, was a happy, healthy, and stoical child — appeared perfectly content with them all.
Some weeks later, Watson and Rayner showed Albert the white rat for a second time. On this occasion, as soon as Albert touched the rat, the psychologists slammed a hammer against a steel bar, producing a sudden and frighteningly loud noise. Over the next few weeks, they discovered that Albert was now afraid of the white rat, even when the steel bar wasn’t struck. And not only that: the child was also scared of objects that in some way resembled the white rat, such as a rabbit or even Watson’s hair.
Watson and Rayner used the term ’conditioning’ to describe this process of learning to fear an unthreatening neutral object or situation because of its pairing with another more obviously frightening event. In this, they were heavily influenced by the work of the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov (1849—1936). Pavlov famously demonstrated that, once a given stimulus (for example, a metronome) is associated with food, dogs will learn to respond to that stimulus in the same way as they react to food — by salivating — even when no food is present.
Watson and Rayner used the example of Albert B. as evidence for their theory that all fears are the result of conditioning: we learn them, usually in our childhood:
the early home life of the child furnishes a laboratory situation for establishing conditioned emotional responses.
It is conditioning, they argued, that explains how irrational fears and phobias develop:
It is probable that many of the phobias in psychopathology are true conditioned emotional reactions …
One baby is not, of course, a scientifically robust sample; on the other hand, most of Watson’s experiments were performed on rats.
Behaviourist ideas regarding anxiety were subsequently developed by the American psychologist O. H. Mowrer (1907—82). In what has been termed the two-stage theory of anxiety, Mowrer argued that anxiety — and specifically the desire to avoid it — is a crucial driver of human behaviour:
anxiety (fear) is the conditioned form of the pain reaction, which has the highly useful function of motivating and reinforcing behavior that tends to avoid or prevent the recurrence of the painproducing stimulus. [Mowrer’s emphasis]
Mowrer’s emphasis on the motivating power of experience anticipates the operant conditioning theory of the Harvard psychologist Burrhus Skinner (1904—90). Skinner focused on the effect our behaviour has on the world around us. If the effect is positive, we learn to repeat the behaviour; a negative effect teaches us to try something different next time. So, for example, because we know how much pain an angry pitbull could inflict upon us, and the terror we’d feel as it rushed towards us, we’re careful not to make any sudden or threatening movements when we walk past one.
Such behaviour is eminently sensible when it comes to genuine risks. But Mowrer’s theory also helps explain how irrational anxieties can take hold. A person who avoids flying because of the anxiety it triggers in them deprives themselves of the opportunity to discover that their fears are exaggerated: the chances of being killed or injured in a plane crash are minute and the fear that seems overwhelming eventually dissipates. By avoiding such situations, our anxiety merely tightens its grip.
Behaviourist approaches to anxiety struggled to supply satisfactory answers to several important questions. For example, why is it that of the many people who experience a frightening experience — a car crash, for example — only some go on to develop a phobia that means they are fearful of travelling by car again? Why do many people develop phobias of situations in which they have never been? And if, according to classical conditioning theory, we can learn to be frightened of any neutral stimulus, why is it that some fears are much more common than others? Why are so many people afraid of heights and animals and so few scared of trees or chocolate?
More recent research has suggested explanations for at least some of these conundrums. It’s clear, for example, that we do not actually have to experience an event ourselves to become afraid of its repetition. We can learn to fear from how others behave and from what they tell us. So if a parent has a phobia, there is an above-average chance of their child developing it too. And some fears may have been hard-wired by evolution. Thus, although we may never have encountered a snake or a dangerous spider, our ancestors would have had ample experience of their potential danger. The very common fears of heights can be understood in the same way. These apparently vestigial fears, relics of human pre-history, are termed ’prepared’ fears by psychologists.
Behaviourism doesn’t provide a complete explanation of anxiety (it would be remarkable if it did!). But its contribution has been huge. Many fears are indeed learned, if not in the relatively crude fashion of classical conditioning. Indeed, the capacity to learn from experience and formulate plans to avoid future danger is surely part of the explanation for humanity’s success. As Mowrer wrote:
the fact that the forward-thinking, anxiety-arousing propensity of the human mind is more highly developed than it is in lower animals probably accounts for many of man’s unique accomplishments.
Behaviourism has also informed some of the most successful strategies for treating anxiety problems. The South African psychologist Joseph Wolpe (1915—97), for example, developed behavioural desensitization to tackle fears and phobias. This technique, which involves gradually exposing individuals to the situation they fear — for example, heights or snakes — so they can learn that there’s actually nothing to be afraid of, is still the standard treatment for phobias.
And the legacy of behaviourism can be seen in today’s most widespread form of psychological therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT. At the root of CBT is the insight that unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviour are not innate but learned. And because they are not innate, they can be unlearned — and often surprisingly quickly with the help of a therapist.