This approach to psychopathology emphasises the role of learning and experience in causing psychological disorders. Behaviourists deal with three main forms of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning and social learning.
This is one of the simplest forms of learning studied originally by Pavlov (1927) using dogs and the natural salivation response to the presence of food. By pairing the sound of a bell with the presentation of food he eventually could stimulate salivation merely by sounding the bell. He had associated or conditioned the stimulus of the bell to the response of salivation.
Classical conditioning involves unconditioned (natural) responses or reflexes. Although it seems a long way from complex human behaviour it does appear to have a role in some forms of psychopathology.
In one of the most celebrated if unethical studies in psychology, Watson and Rayner (1920) classically conditioned an 11-month-old child, since known as Little Albert, to fear fluffy animals. They did this by pairing presentation of a tame white rat with a sudden loud noise. The noise caused fear, an unconditioned reflex equivalent to salivation in Pavlov's experiment, while the rat was the equivalent of the bell. Eventually Albert was conditioned to associate the rat with fear. Little Albert also became afraid of other fluffy objects similar to the white rate such as a rabbit and white dog; this is known as stimulus generalisation.
In this way classical conditioning has been used to account for the development of phobias. Phobias are characterised by extreme fear of certain objects or situations. Examples include fear of heights and enclosed spaces, or of spiders and snakes. One simple explanation of phobias is that a traumatic experience, especially early in life, leads to the conditioning of fear to that particular object or situation. This fear then generalises to similar objects or situations. This leads to the adult having a general phobia of, say, all spiders or all enclosed spaces.
Although classical conditioning provided an explanation for the development of phobias it soon became clear that many people with phobias had not actually experienced traumatic encounters with, for instance spiders or enclosed spaces. This led Seligman (1971) to proposed the concept of preparedness. Preparedness is…