Psychology - Behaviourist approach - Systematic desensitisation

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  • Created by: jkav
  • Created on: 09-05-15 13:10

Systematic desensitisation

An individual may learn that their feared stimulus is not so fearfulafter all - if only they could re-experience the feared stimulus. However, this never happens because the anxiety the stimulus creates, blockes any attempt to re-experience it. Joseph Wolpe developed a technique in the 1950's where phobics were gradually introduced to a feared stimulus, based on Masserman's research with cats.


The process begins with learning relaxiation techniques. The eventual aim is to acquire a new stimulus-response link, moving from responding to a stimulus with fear, to responding to the feared stimulus with relaxation. This is called counterconditioning because the patient is taught a new association that runs counter to the orginal association. Wolpe also called this 'reciprocal inhibition' because the relaxation inhibits the anxiety.

Desensitisation hierarchy

A series of gradual steps that are determined at the beginning of therapy when the patient and therapist work out a hierachy of feared stimuli.

Different forms of Systematic desensitisation

In the early days of SD, patients would learn to confront their feared situations directly, by learning to relax in the presence of objects or images that would normally arouse anxiety. In more recent years, however, rather than actually presenting the feared stimulus, the therapist asks the subject to imagine the presence of it.

Research has found that actual contact with the feared stimulus is most successful, so in viv techniques are more successful…


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