The behavioural approach to explaining and treating phobias - Psychopathology

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

The behavioural approach to explaining and treating phobias


The behavioural explanation sees phobias as learned through experience via the process of association. The two-process model sees phobias as being learned through classical conditioning, with the maintenance of phobias occurring through operant conditioning.

• Classical conditioning sees a neutral stimulus becoming associated with a fear response so that the neutral stimulus produces the fear response on its own. For example, if a person gets mugged at night, then the neutral stimulus of night-time could become paired with a fear response, so that a person develops a phobia of the dark.

• With operant conditioning, a behaviour that is rewarding reinforces the behaviour (makes it likely to occur again). So when an avoidance response is made to reduce the chances of contact with a phobic stimulus, it is negatively reinforcing — it reduces the fear response and thus the phobia is maintained, as the sufferer repeatedly makes reinforcing avoidance responses.

Systematic desensitisation (SD) is a behavioural therapy for treating phobias and involves a sufferer learning relaxation techniques, which are then used to repeatedly reduce anxiety, as the sufferer goes through a progressive hierarchy of exposure to the phobic stimulus — for example, a step-by-step approach to holding a spider to reduce a fear of the beasties.


Fig 4.5 Systematic desensitisation involves a step-by-step approach to a feared object or situation

Focal study

Brosnan & Thorpe (2006) investigated whether a fear of computers could be treated with SD. In Study 1, computer-anxious participants were given a 10-week programme of SD; while in Study 2, one group of computer-anxious participants were given a similar programme of SD and another group of computer-anxious participants received no treatment. In both studies there was also a control group of non-computer-anxious participants. In Study 1, anxiety levels in the computer-anxious participants declined to levels similar to the control group, while coping strategies noticeably improved. In Study 2, reduction in anxiety in the computer-anxious participants was 3 times greater than in the non-treated group over the course of a year. At the end of 1 year the computer-anxious participants’ anxiety levels matched those of the control group, while the non-treated group remained significantly more anxious. This suggests that SD is effective in reducing technophobia (fear of technology).


• Watson & Rayner (1920) got a boy to hold a rat that he was not afraid of, while simultaneously scaring him by banging a bar behind his head. This was repeated over a period until the boy, when presented with the rat, would show fear. This illustrates how phobias can be learned through classical conditioning.

• Di Gallo (1996) showed that phobias of cars, developed through traumatic car accidents, were maintained by sufferers making avoidance responses, such as remaining at home rather than making car journeys to see friends. This illustrates how phobias are maintained by negative reinforcements associated with operant conditioning.

• King et al. (1998) reported that case studies showed that children acquired strong phobias through traumatic experiences, demonstrating the role of classical conditioning in the development of phobias, where a fear response becomes associated with an originally neutral stimulus.

Positive evaluation

Image Acquisition of phobias can also be explained by social learning theory (SLT), where phobias are learned through observation and imitation. As SLT is another type of learning based on behaviourism, it gives added support to the explanation.

Image The success of behavioural treatments like SD in treating phobias suggests that behavioural explanations of the acquisition and maintenance of phobias are valid.

Image Behavioural explanations can be combined with biological ones to give a better understanding of phobias. The idea of genetic vulnerability explains how some individuals inherit an increased susceptibility to developing phobias, which then occur if certain environmental experiences occur for an individual.

Negative evaluation

Image There are other valid, non-behavioural explanations of phobias, such as cognitive explanations that focus on faulty thought processes occurring between stimuli and responses and the evolutionary explanation, which sees phobias as having become widespread through the process of natural selection due to their adaptive survival value.

Image SD is only really suitable for patients who are able to learn and use relaxation strategies, which is not always an easy thing for those experiencing high levels of anxiety. They also need to have imaginations vivid enough to conjure up images of phobic stimuli.

Image The behavioural explanation is weakened by the fact that not everyone experiencing traumatic events, like a car crash, goes on to develop a phobia associated with the event.

Practical application

As well as SD, there are other useful behavioural treatments of phobias, like flooding, which involves direct confrontation with a feared stimulus. There are even smartphone apps based on SD which have been used to successfully treat phobias.