Phobias are learned behaviors, and can be unlearned. Classical conditioning typically initiates a phobia, and operant conditioning maintains the phobia. The first three examples are fictionalized scenarios developed from Dyce's lecture material (J. Dyce, personal communication, n.d.).
In classical conditioning, unconditioned and conditioned processes are parallel:
- Cherry-red hot metal is in the pre-learning phase of a conditioned stimulus. As it has a pretty color, a person, perhaps a child, may be attracted rather than fearful.
- The person touches it (unconditioned stimulus), and gets burned badly (unconditioned response), and learns that cherry-red metal inflicts pain when touched.
- The sight of cherry-red metal (conditioned stimulus) results in fear (conditioned response) because of the injury.
In operant conditioning, an initial stimulus of fear is necessary to create phobic behavior:
- Discriminative stimulus: The learning from the consequence of a previous experience creates a fear.
- Operant response: A person avoids the activity.
- Reinforcement: The consequence is a feeling of comfort from avoiding the activity (that reinforces the stimulus and response).
A person may have a minor car accident, and hence fear driving as conditioned response to the accident. By avoiding driving, he further reinforces the influence of the minor accident, which makes the phobia more difficult to overcome.
In classical conditioning therapy, a new parallel conditioned stimulus is added by teaching someone how to correctly use hot metal. Beneficial experiences of working with the hot metal without getting burned extinguish the fear of the hot metal. This example might be found in the historical context of the "cottage blacksmith."
The person who suffered a burn, perhaps as a child, is introduced to the tools necessary for working with hot metal. Then, using cold metal for practice to gradually reduce the fear, or desensitize the conditioned response, the person is taught how to pick up the metal. After some practice, the person successfully holds the hot metal with the tools. This begins the extinguishing process so that, with more experience, the fear reduces to normal, but necessary, caution, rather than acting as a phobia.
As reinforcement is a component of the operant model, operant therapies for phobias in children require that parents stop reinforcing the phobia, which presumably happens when parents help the child avoid the fear-causing stimulus (Lazarus, Davison, & Polefka, 1965) and reinforce the desired behavior (Glasscock, & MacLean, 1990). In a case study of a girl who had developed a fear of dogs, the parents were asked to give social praise when the girl spent time playing with dogs recruited for her therapy.
Assuming that the girl who had developed a fear of dogs had liked dogs prior to having a bad experience such as being bitten by a dog, then she, at a certain point, would like dogs again with the success of her therapy, which was classical desensitization (Glasscock, & MacLean, 1990). At this point, another operant scenario takes place; her improved experiences with dogs reinforce her interactions with her family dog. This develops an encouraging discriminative stimulus that further supports positive interactions that, in turn, provide further reinforcement.
Glasscock, S., & MacLean Jr., W. (1990). Use of contact desensitization and shaping in the treatment of dog phobia and generalized fear of the outdoors. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 19(2), 169. Retrieved from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database.
Lazarus, A., Davison, G., & Polefka, D. (1965). Classical and operant factors in the treatment of a school phobia. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 70(3), 225-229. doi:10.1037/h0022130.