Explaining Phobias

Behavioural approaches suggest that abnormal behaviour is learned somehow.

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Two-Process Model

Developed by Mowrer (1960), this suggests that phobias are acquired through learning.

Phobias are acquired initially by classical conditioning (learning by association). If an unpleasant emotion is paired with a stimulus, then the two become associated with each other through conditioning. For example, a child being knocked over by a dog associated the unpleasantness of falling over with dogs.

Phobias are maintained through operant conditioning (learning through rewards / punishments) - the person avoids the phobic stimulus, and gains reward for doing so. For example, constantly avoiding situations involving dogs. this maintains the phobia because the feared association is never 'unlearned'.

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Evaluation of the Two-Process Model

+ This explanation is useful for developing therapies, as it explains that in order to overcome the fear, the person must be exposed to the phobic stimulus. This has led to successful therapies for phobias, strengthening the explanation. 

- Some phobias don't follow a traumatic experience, for example a person may have a fear of snakes without ever having encountered a snake. This suggests some phobias have not been acquired through learning, weakening this explanation. 

- We may be pre-disposed to some phobias, such as snakes or spiders, which would have given human ancestors a survival advantage. This means the capacity for certain phobias is 'hard-wired', and therefore not learnt. Phobias of guns and cars, which are far more dangerous to most humans today, are very rare, perhaps because these things were not present in humans' evolutionary past. This weakens the behavioural explanation.

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Treating Phobias - Systematic Desensitisation (SD)

Developed in the 1950s, this is based on principles of classical conditioning, and the idea that it is not possible for two opposite emotions, such as relaxation and anxiety, to co-exist ('reciprocal inhibition).

The therapist and client work together to set an aim (for example, to be able to touch a snake without panic). This is the 'target behaviour'.

Relaxation techniques are taught and practised - a person cannot be relaxed and afraid at the same time.

Then, an anxiety hierarchy is drawn up. The target behaviour is the aim of the therapy, but this is way too difficult at first. Therefore, small steps are identified and working through, using scales of 1-10 for estimating fear / challenge. These steps can be real or imaginary. Only once the client has mastered one step can they move on to the next, finishing with the target behaviour. 

For example: looking at a photograph of a snake, looking at a video of a snake; being in a room with a snake in a box in the opposite corner; moving the snake to the middle of the room in the box; standing next to the snake in the box; taking the lid off the box; touching the snake.

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Evaluation of Systematic Desensitisation

+ Gilroy et al (2003) found that SD was effective in treating spider phobias, when compared with a control group who only received relaxation training. This shows that the treatment does work. 

+ SD can be used with a wide range of patients, as it is based on basic behavioural techniques. For example, it can be used on patients with learning difficulties. This means it can help more people.

+ Patients are likely to engage with it, as it does not seem too daunting during a treatment. This is shown in the low drop-out rates of the treatment. Therefore, it is effective for a lot of people.

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Treating Phobias - Flooding

This is like systematic desensitisation, but without the build-up.

The patient goes straight to the target behaviour or the situation which would cause maximum anxiety, for example being locked in a small room with lots of spiders. T

he patient will become extremely anxious, but will eventually come to see that the phobic stimulus is not, and will not, cause them harm - humans cannot remain in a state of extreme, heightened anxiety indefinitely.

Alternatively, they may become exhausted by their reaction so will calm down eventually.

This can work in just one session.

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Evaluation of Flooding

+ It can work very quickly, for example in as little as an hour or so. This means that it has little impact on people's day-to-day life (no need to spend hours in therapy sessions) so is a useful treatment.

- Some phobias are hard to treat with it - perhaps because they have cognitive elements - for example, a fear of public speaking is caused by the thought that the person will say things wrong. This may not be treatable by flooding, so weakening this treatment.

- It is very traumatic for patients. They will give consent, but they will experience extreme anxiety, and the treatment might not even work. Therefore, ti will not be appropriate for some people.

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