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Discuss two or more psychological explanations of phobic disorders (8 marks + 16 marks)
One psychological explanation for phobic disorders can be explained by the behavioural approach. This approach
proposes that phobias are acquired through conditioning. The case study of Little Albert showed he developed a
fear of white furry objects through classical conditioning as he had experienced a furry rat, the neutral stimulus,
being associated with a loud noise, the unconditioned stimulus (UCS). The UCS produced an unconditioned
response of fear and the furry object, now a conditioned stimulus, acquired the same properties so that when
Albert saw it he cried because he was scared. Sue et al. found people with phobias recall a specific incident when
their phobia first appeared, e.g. being bitten by a dog, therefore showing research support for classical
conditioning in developing a phobia. However, not everyone who has a phobia can recall such an incident,
although Ost argues it may be that such traumatic incidents have been repressed. In addition, not everyone who
is bitten by a dog develops a phobia, which the diathesis-stress model can explain in terms of those with a
genetic vulnerability for phobias would only be affected by such events. This can also be explained by biological
preparedness as it may be that fear responses are only learned when the neutral stimulus is an ancient fear.
Bergman failed to condition a fear response in infants by pairing a loud bell with wooden blocks which therefore
supports this assumption as the conditioned stimulus was not an ancient fear and participants did not acquire a
fear towards it.
Mowrer proposed the two-process theory suggesting that phobias are firstly acquired through classical
conditioning and secondly maintained through operant conditioning, where the avoidance of the phobic stimulus
reduces fear and is thus reinforcing. Phobias may also be acquired through imitating the behaviour of others, e.g.
seeing a parent responding to a spider with extreme fear may lead a child to acquire a similar behaviour because
the behaviour appears rewarding. Bandura and Rosenthal conducted an experiment involving an observer
watching a model experiencing pain every time a buzzer sounded. The observer later demonstrated an
emotional reaction to the sound therefore providing research support for the assumption that fear can be learnt
through social learning. In conclusion, different phobias may be the result of different processes as for example,
Sue et al. found that agoraphobics were most likely to explain their disorder in terms of a specific incident,
whereas arachnophobics were most likely to cite modelling as the cause.
A second psychological explanation for phobic disorders can be explained by the psychodynamic approach.
Freud proposed that phobias were the conscious expression of repressed conflicts. The ego deals with conflict
by repressing the undesirable emotions into the unconscious mind. Such repressed thoughts are expressed by
projecting them onto a neutral object/situation. Therefore the individual displays a fear of the object/situation
rather than expressing their real fear. For example, the case study of Little Hans concerned a boy who had
become terrified of horses. Freud suggested that Hans' phobia developed because Hans projected a real fear
that his mother would leave him, onto horses.
However, this study is a case study which concerns one unique individual and therefore cannot be generalised to
the wider population. The Little Hans study also lacked objectivity because both Hans' father and Freud
interpreted the evidence according to their expectations about the origins of phobias. This therefore may
challenge the reliability of the approach's assumption.
Although, Bowlby found that agoraphobics often had early experiences of family conflict. He suggested that
such conflict leads a young child to feel anxious when separated from their parents and such fears are
suppressed but later emerge as agoraphobia therefore showing research support for the psychodynamic
approach. Also, Whiting et al. studied the occurrence of phobias in other cultures and concluded that they were
more common in societies that had a structured form of child-rearing. The reason may be because stricter,
structured parenting might lead to children having to repress desires showing further support that repressed
conflicts can lead to phobias. However, there may obviously be other factors that cause phobias such as our
genes and environment, but the fact that therapies that simply target the symptoms of phobias are not 100%
successful may be because they fail to deal with the underlying causes of phobias.