Explanations of phobias revision notes

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Briefly outline the studies conducted about the ge

  • Solyom et al. found that out of 47 patients with a specific phobia, 45% had a first degree relative with a history of psychiatric disorder. 
  • Noyes et al. found a higher than normal rate of agoraphobia in first degree relatives using the family interview method. 
  • Fyer et al. (1990) found that out of 49 first degree relatives of people with specific phobia, 31% of relatives were also diagnosed with phobias. However, only two people had the same phobia. 
  • Mannuza et al. (1995)made a distinction between generalised and non generalised phobias and found that 16% of those with generalised phobia had a relative with social phobia whereas there was only 6% of those with non-generalised phobia. This suggests a particular inclination to inherit generalised social phobia over non-generalised. 
  • Torgensen (1983) found a 31% concordance for MZ twins and a 0% concordance for DZ twins for panic disorder with agoraphobia. 
  • Kendler et al. (1992) found that MZ twins had lower concordance rates for agoraphobia than DZ twins. This runs counter to the genetic hypothesis. Researchers have suggested the close emotional bond between twins may serve as a protective barrier. 
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How might GABA be involved in the origin of phobia

  • GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) is a neurotransmitter which has a calming effect on the body. People with anxiety disorders show low levels of GABA in their brains which suggest that the levels of GABA have an influence on phobic disorders. 
  • Also, benzodiazepines (work like GABA) have been proven to be very effective in relieving symptoms of panic in individuals with phobias supporting the hypothesis that low levels of this neurotransmitter result in higher levels of anxiety
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Psychodynamic explanation of phobias

  • Freud - believed that phobias are a symptom of underlying conflict in the unconscious mind (id impulses) The phobia itself is not the conflict, it is a symptom. Phobias operate with repression and displacement. 
  • Bowlby - phobias can be explained through the theory of attachment. For example, individuals who have agoraphobia are more likely to have had an insecure/avoidant attachment.


  • Based on limited case studies (Little Hans)
  • However, there is evidence to say that phobias are more common in cultures that are strict (Whiting, 1966) 
  • There is no evidence for symptom substitution
  • Inconsistent evidence for Bowlby's theory. Evidence to suggest that overprotection results in social phobia but many studies show no relationship at all. 
  • Links with early abuse - correlation evidence (relationship, not cause and effect) shows links between early sexual/physical abuse and phobias.
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How can a phobia be acquired through conditioning?


Association (classical conditioing)



Reduction (operant)

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Outline ethical issues in Watson and Rayner's 1920

  • Made Little Albert feel uncomfortable and fearful purposefully
  • Little Albert could not give his consent to the experiment
  • He had to live a life with a phobia of white rats 
  • He was not protected
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Outline and evaluate the preparedness theory of ph

The preparedness theory (developed by Seligman) explains that we have a biological predispositon to fear certain stimuli that are potential dangerous to us. This theory explains why phobias such as snakes and spiders are so common; because they are potentially dangerous. Fearing these objects would increase likelihood of survival. 

Garcia and Koelling (1966) found that rats would avoid life threatening stimuli (like toxic shocks) but wouldn't respond to harmless stimuli (flashing lights). 

Evaluative comments

  • Doesn't explain all phobias, only some (feathers buttons etc.)
  • Explains irrationality of phobias (study by Ohman et al. 1976; fear relevant stimuli was harder to extinguish)
  • Explains ease of developing phobias (Mineka et al. 1984 found monkeys had a persistent fear of snakes after one encounter with them)
  • The real fear is not the object itself, but the fear of having a panic attack. 
  • Biological predisposition would suggest that everyone has the innate tendency to fear. However in Africa the spider is protected by local people. Also spiders are eaten as a delicacy. 
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Explain the cognitive behavioural approach

Beck and Ellis suggest that phobias are a result of catastrophic thinking and irrational beliefs. 

E.g. the experience of feeling hemmed in while crammed in a lift may provoke the individual to think irrationally about the situation. It is not just exposure that initiates the phobia; the person has to think irrationally about the future also. 

Beck - people with phobias know that on a rational level, their phobia is harmless. It was found that anxiety increased as the phobic object became closer and closer to them. It was also found that they were more occupied with their current state of anxiety. 

Williams et al. (1997) subjected agoraphobics to a hierarchy of increasingly scary tasks and recorded the participants' thoughts. He found that the individuals were more occupied with their current anxiety rather than their safety. 

Negative self appraisal and perfectionism (cognitions) correlate positively with the onset of those with social phobia. 

Success of CBT adds merit to the cognitive behavioural approach. 

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What is the diathesis-stress model and how does it

The diathesis model suggests that we all inherit (biologically or through experience) a certain level of susceptibility to stress. The interaction between our diathesis (vulnerability) and life events will determine if an individual gets a phobia or not. Day to day events like daily hassles (investigated by Kobasa) and life changes are thought to play a significant role in the development of phobias. 

Evaluative comments

  • Kleiner and Marshall found that 84% of people with agoraphobia in a sample had suffered with family problems before the onset of their first panic attack. 
  • Role of vulnerability factors explains how some people gain a phobia and how some people don't. The aeitology of a phobia is a combination of susceptibility and exposure to the environment. 
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