The Development of Phobias and Addictions: A Focus on Classical and Operant Conditioning

1. Introduction

Phobias are the persistent fears brought about by certain situations or any other thing, can be better understood through classical and operant conditioning. Certain steps are involved in the development of a phobia which include sensitization, fear acquisition, fear generalization and finally fear maintenance (West & Hardy, 2006). On the other hand, an addiction is defined as a compulsive dependence on a substance or activity that leads to detrimental consequences (Weiss & Latimer, 2014). Although different in definition, both phobias and addictions share commonalities in terms of their mechanism of development. In this paper, I will provide an overview of the development of phobias and addictions, with a focus on how classical and operant conditioning plays a role in their formation. I will also discuss different theories of extinction and how they can be applied to help reduce phobic and addictive behaviours.

2. Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning is a type of learning that occurs when two stimuli are paired together, such that the presentation of one stimulus (the conditioned stimulus) comes to elicit a response (the conditioned response) that was originally only elicited by the other stimulus (the unconditioned stimulus) (Domjan, 2015). In other words, classical conditioning involves learning to associate two different things so that one thing eventually comes to trigger the same response as the other. An example of classical conditioning would be if a person became afraid of snakes after being bitten by one – the sound and sight of a snake (the conditioned stimulus) would come to elicit fear (the conditioned response) even in the absence of any actual threat (the unconditioned stimulus).

There are four key elements to classical conditioning:

Unconditioned Stimulus (US): This is a stimulus that naturally and automatically produces a particular reaction known as the unconditioned response (UR). In the above example, the snake bite would be the US.

Unconditioned Response (UR): This is the automatic or reflexive response that is elicited by the unconditioned stimulus. In the above example, the UR would be fear or anxiety.

Conditioned Stimulus (CS): This is originally just a neutral stimulus that does not produce any particular reaction. However, after being paired with the unconditioned stimulus enough times, it comes to elicit the same response as the unconditioned stimulus – even in the absence of that stimulus. In our example above, seeing or hearing about snakes would eventually come serve as the CS.

Conditioned Response (CR): This is the reaction elicited by the conditioned stimulus – in other words, it is the learned response to the CS. In our above example, feeling afraid or anxious in response to seeing or hearing about snakes would be the CR.

3. Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is a type of learning that occurs as a consequence of either reinforcing or punishing a behaviour – in other words, it involves modifying behaviour based on its consequences (Domjan, 2015). The two main types of reinforcement/punishment are positive and negative reinforcement/punishment:

Positive reinforcement strengthens behaviour by adding something pleasurable after the behaviour is displayed, while negative reinforcement strengthens behaviour by removing something unpleasant after the behaviour is displayed.

Positive punishment weakens behaviour by adding something unpleasant after the behaviour is displayed, while negative punishment weakens behaviour by removing something pleasant after the behaviour is displayed.

4. The role of fear in the development of phobias and addictions

As mentioned earlier, phobias are defined as persistent fears that are brought about by certain situations or objects (West & Hardy, 2006). It is important to note that phobias are not simply excessive or irrational fears, but rather they are excessive and irrational fears that persist even in the absence of any actual threat. In other words, people with phobias will continue to experience fear even when they are not in any danger. This can cause significant distress and interfere with daily functioning. Phobias can be classified into three different types: specific phobias, social phobias and agoraphobia.

Specific phobias are intense fears of specific objects or situations, such as snakes, heights, or flying. People with specific phobias will typically go out of their way to avoid the thing they are afraid of. Social phobias are intense fears of social situations, such as public speaking or meeting new people. People with social phobias typically avoid social situations altogether or else endure them with great anxiety. Agoraphobia is an intense fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or impossible, such as being in a crowd or being outside of one’s home. People with agoraphobia will typically only leave their homes if someone else is with them, and they will often avoid leaving home altogether.

There are several different theories that have been proposed to explain the development of phobias, but most of them share a common focus on the role of fear in the formation of these disorders. One theory suggests that phobias develop as a result of classical conditioning – that is, through exposure to a traumatic event or witnessing someone else experience a traumatic event (Domjan, 2015). According to this theory, the trauma serves as the unconditioned stimulus and fear serves as the unconditioned response. With repeated exposure to the trauma (or exposure to things that serve as reminders of the trauma), the fear response becomes conditioned to those stimuli and eventually comes to be elicited by them even in the absence of any actual danger.

A second theory suggests that phobias develop as a result of operant conditioning – that is, through reinforcement or punishment following exposure to a particular stimulus (Domjan, 2015). According to this theory, people who display fear in response to a particular stimulus are more likely to be reinforced (e.g., by being comforted or receiving attention) or less likely to be punished (e.g., by being ignored or ridiculed) than those who do not display fear. As a result, they learn to associate fear with that particular stimulus and eventually come to experience fear even when there is no danger present.

It should be noted that both classical and operant conditioning play a role in the development of phobias – however, classical conditioning is thought to be more important in the development of specific phobias while operant conditioning is thought to be more important in the development of social phobias and agoraphobia (Domjan, 2015).

Addictions also share a number of similarities with phobics in terms of their mechanism of development. Addictions are defined as compulsive dependencies on a substance or activity that lead to detrimental consequences (Weiss & Latimer, 2014). As with phobias, there are several different theories that have been proposed to explain the development of addictions, but most of them share a common focus on the role of reinforcement in the formation of these disorders. One theory suggests that addictions develop as a result of positive reinforcement – that is, through the provision of a pleasurable consequence (e.g., a drug high) following engagement in the addictive behaviour (Domjan, 2015). According to this theory, people learn to associate the addictive behaviour with pleasure and eventually come to crave it even when there are negative consequences present.

A second theory suggests that addictions develop as a result of negative reinforcement – that is, through the removal of an unpleasant consequence (e.g., withdrawal symptoms) following engagement in the addictive behaviour (Domjan, 2015). According to this theory, people learn to associate the addictive behaviour with the relief of symptoms and eventually come to crave it even when there are negative consequences present.

It should be noted that both positive and negative reinforcement play a role in the development of addictions – however, positive reinforcement is thought to be more important in the development of addictions to substances while negative reinforcement is thought to be more important in the development of addictions to behaviours (Domjan, 2015).

5. Theories of extinction

Extinction is the process by which a previously learned behaviour starts to decrease in frequency and eventually disappears altogether (Domjan, 2015). There are several different theories that have been proposed to explain how extinction works, but most of them share a common focus on the role of repeated exposure in the disappearance of phobic and addictive behaviours. One theory suggests that exposure to the phobic stimulus without any reinforcement leads to a decrease in fear because it allows people to realize that there is no actual danger present (Domjan, 2015). According to this theory, people with phobias come to realize that their fear is excessive and irrational through exposure therapy – that is, by repeatedly exposing themselves to the thing they are afraid of in a safe and controlled environment.

A second theory suggests that exposure to the phobic stimulus with repeated non-reinforcement leads to a decrease in fear because it makes people less likely to associate fear with that particular stimulus (Domjan, 2015). According to this theory, people with phobias learn that their fear is not actually justified through exposure therapy – that is, by repeatedly exposing themselves to the thing they are afraid of in a safe and controlled environment without experiencing any actual danger.

It should be noted that both of these theories apply to the treatment of addictions as well – that is, by repeatedly exposing oneself to the addictive behaviour in a safe and controlled environment without experiencing any reinforcement from the behaviour.

6. Conclusion

In conclusion, phobias and addictions share many similarities in terms of their mechanism of development. Both disorders are thought to develop as a result of classical and operant conditioning, and both can be treated through exposure therapy. Although different in definition, phobias and addictions share commonalities in terms of their etiology and treatment.

FAQ

Phobias are intense, irrational fears of specific objects or situations. Addictions are compulsive, often harmful behaviors that a person feels powerless to stop.

Phobias and addictions can develop in response to a variety of triggers, including genetics, trauma, and exposure to stress or environmental cues.

Phobias and addictions can have serious consequences on a person's physical and mental health, as well as their social and work life.

There are a number of effective treatments for phobias and addictions, including therapy, medication, and self-help groups.

There are several things that can be done to prevent the development of phobias and addictions, including education about the risks involved and early intervention for those at risk.