What is the Behaviourist explanation for the development of phobias?

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The behaviourist explanation suggest that phobias and other behaviours are learnt through classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is learning through association with involuntary reflex responses Watson and Rayner conditioned a baby- Little Albert- to fear white rats. Prior to the experiment, Little Albert actually showed an interest in the rat however one day, whilst he played with the rat, the researchers struck a steel bar with a hammer close to Albert’s head and Albert showed fear to the noise. This was repeated each time he reached for the rat and eventually he developed a phobia of rats.

Striking hammer (unconditioned stimulus) – Fear (unconditioned response)

White rat (neutral stimulus) – No response

White rat (conditioned stimulus) + Striking hammer (unconditioned stimulus)- Fear (unconditioned response)

White rat (conditioned stimulus) - Fear (conditioned response)

The experiment isn’t very internally valid due to the fact that it was a repeated measures design and therefore Little Albert may have been affected by order effects such as fatigue and boredom, so this may have been the reason for why Albert was distressed. It may have also been the environmental factors such as him being stuck inside a laboratory or being surrounded by strangers that induced his response and not him developing a phobia. The experiment also very externally valid as it was conducted within a laboratory and not in a natural environment. It may have also been difficult to generalise the results to the whole population of all ages because its only one case study and we don’t know whether older children or adults may have reacted in the same way.

Following this point of not being able to generalise to adults due to Albert only being a baby, the Bagby study demonstrated a phobia being classically conditioned within an adult.  The women becoming trapped (unconditioned stimulus) initially induced the fear (unconditioned response). The neutral stimulus in the beginning was the running water as it received no response. However when putting both the being trapped in rocks (unconditioned stimulus) and the running water (conditioned stimulus) together this produced an unconditioned response of fear. Eventually after a long period of time, only the running water itself (conditioned stimulus) would cause fear (conditioned response.)

Mowers Two-Process Theory stated that the first step was the acquisition of a phobia through classical conditioning. The second step would be the maintenance of phobic behaviour through operant conditioning- negative reinforcement.

Operant conditioning is learning through reinforcement relating to voluntary non reflex responses. In terms of phobias, people will go to great lengths to avoid the object or situation that is causing them anxiety, often planning ahead to ensure they will never come into contact with it. This means that when the phobia is avoided, the anxiety is reduced. This is negative reinforcement as the person will act in such a way to avoid a negative outcome therefore the avoidance behaviour is likely to be repeated.

The study that Di Nardo conducted showed that over 60% of people who had developed a fear of dogs (cynophobia) can remember having a traumatic experience with a dog however the Di Nardo study cannot explain why 60% of people in Di Nardo’s study who had suffered a dog bite could recall being bitten however the other 40% could not recall a traumatic experience. Over half of those who had reported being bitten did not develop a dog phobia. This could be down to many factors. The Psychodynamic explanation may state that they have simply repressed it and it is in their unconscious mind or they may have been too young to remember it. This also could be explained by some people more emotionally stable and less prone to anxiety than others. This may be down to the differences in people’s nervous systems where some people’s sympathetic nervous system is quick to respond and the parasympathetic is slow to respond. This could explain why some gained a fear and others didn’t.

On the other hand there is much evidence to support Mowrers two –process theory, for example the study of Little Albert demonstrated that an emotional response of fear can be induced within a human from an originally neutral stimulus through classical conditioning however there is a lot of criticise surrounding the experimentation on Little Albert. The ethical issues involved in the study could suggest that the researchers were simply taking advantage of the fact that Albert was an orphan as they knew that this factor would give them easier access in order to conduct experimental research. Many of the studies conducted by behaviourists, such as the Little Albert case, lacked ecological validity. The experiment was artificial as it was conducted within a laboratory meaning that we don’t know whether the results could have been generalised to the population outside of the laboratory. The experiments showed that fears could be induced within a laboratory situation however this may not be the same principles in a real life situation.

Another strength of the behaviourist approach is that it is highly scientific as much of the research is highly controlled and involves strong control of all variables involved in order to establish that the independent variable in itself will have an effect on the dependent variable. Other extraneous variables such as the background noise in the room, the amount of researchers present in the room, have been controlled as far as possible to make an accurate judgement that the classical conditioning (cause) has produced the response of developing a phobia (effect), establishing cause and effect as well as possible.

Many of the studies conducted couldn’t be generalised beyond the case study. The Little Albert study has been replicated many times and they have not found the same results, therefore this is a weakness of the explanation. The results of the study cannot be generalised to the whole population of all ages and both genders beyond this case. The case is only one study therefore it is difficult to generalise , especially due to the fact that Albert was only a baby, meaning it would be hard to determine whether or not adults or older children would have been able to develop a phobia as simply or easily. Little Albert may have also had individual differences and may have had a different nervous system which made him more prone to anxiety, making it difficult to generalise to the whole public.

Suzanne W. A Level Psychology tutor, GCSE Psychology tutor

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