Phobias and Addictions
“Learning is any enduring change in the way an organism responds based on its experience.”
(Kowalski & Westen, 2011, p. 164). According to our
text, phobias and addictions are two emotional difficulties that can develop
through learning (Kowalski & Westen, 2011). Learning can take
place through various different methods. Classical and operant conditioning are
two common learning methods developed by Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner,
respectively. The results of classical and operant conditioning can contribute
to an individual’s ability to thrive and function; however, phobias and
addictions can also develop as a result.
Phobias and Classical Conditioning
Phobias are a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it. This desire can interfere with a person’s ability to work, socialize, or go about his or her daily routine. Researchers have different theories on the cause of phobias. Some theories conclude that phobias are the result of classical conditioning
(Coelho & Purkis, 2009).
Phobias develop through classical conditioning when one stimulus is paired with another resulting in a different response
(Dingfelder, 2005). In 1920, John B. Watson and Rosalie
Rayner conducted a landmark study involving classical conditioning. In this
study, they concluded that emotional responses could be conditioned, or learned
(Little Albert). First, they frightened their subject,
Little Albert, by making a loud noise behind him. Then, through many tests,
they associated the noise to a white rat. Little Albert had become conditioned
to be afraid of the rat even without the noise. Other phobias can be conditioned
the same way. For example, a young child receives a shot at the doctor’s office
and feels pain when injected with the needle. Over time, the child associates
needles with pain and begins to cry at the sight of a needle. The child has
been conditioned to have a phobia of needle.
Addictions and Operant Conditioning
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry”
(Definition of Addiction). There are many
types of addictions such as gambling, substances, pornography, food and sex.
Addictions can become so strong to the point they can also interfere with a
person’s normal life. The basis behind operant conditioning is that behavior is
controlled by its consequences (Kowalski & Westen, 2011).
An addiction develops when a behavior is met with reinforcement. If the reinforcement is positive to the person, the behavior becomes more frequent. This satisfies the brain reward portion of the addiction definition. An example of addiction developed by operant conditioning is alcoholism. A person drinks alcohol (behavior) and begins to feel a “high” (reinforcement). The person begins to drink to feel the “high”. This person has become addicted to alcohol through operant conditioning. The drive the person wanted (the “high”) is satisfied and he or she feels fulfilled as explained in Theory of Addiction
(West, 2006, p. 98).
Distinguishing Between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning
Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are two major theories of behavior. While both have some similarities such as being methods to modify behavior and the use of extinction, they also have differences. Classical conditioning involves a natural stimulus paired with a response. In classical conditioning, a previously neutral response creates the response even without the presence of the natural stimulus. Operant conditioning involves an association between a behavior and its consequence. Classical conditioning places a neutral signal before a reflex whereas operant conditioning applies the reinforcement or punishment after a behavior. Classical conditioning focuses on involuntary behaviors whereas operant conditioning focuses on voluntary behaviors. While the two are very different, they are both important in the learning process.
Extinction in Classical and Operant Conditioning
Extinction is the gradual weakening of a conditioned response that results in the behavior decreasing or disappearing. Phobias and addictions are two difficulties that can affect general living. Therefore, therapy should involve eliminating these from the person’s mind. While not all phobias are developed through classical conditioning, those that are can be eliminated by extinction. In classical conditioning, extinction refers to the process by which a conditioned response is weakened by the presentation of the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus
(Kowalski & Westen, 2011). In the example of
Little Albert, his phobia of the white rat could be decreased by the
presentation of the loud noise without the white rat being presented.
Addictions developed through operant conditioning can also be eliminated by extinction
(Kowalski & Westen, 2011). Extinction happens
when the reward is no longer satisfying. In the alcoholism example, once the
alcohol no longer provides the “high” feeling desired, the person will no
longer drink and the behavior will be extinguished. Major addictions may need
more therapy than just basic extinction.
Other behavioral therapy methods may be used to solicit the extinction
There are many emotional difficulties a person may experience. Two that behavioral researchers have studied are phobias and addictions. Both of these can affect a person’s life in very negative manners. Classical and operant conditioning are two methods in which learning can occur. Some researchers believe that phobias can be developed through classical conditioning and addictions can be developed by operant conditioning. Just as phobias and addictions can be caused by these methods, extinction can help reverse them.
Coelho, C., & Purkis, H. (2009). The origins of specific phobias: Influential theories and current perspectives. Review Of General Psychology, 13(4) , 335-348.
Definition of Addiction. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2012, from American Society of Addiction Medicine: http://www.asam.org/research-treatment/definition-of-addiction
Dingfelder, S. (2005). Distinguishing between phobias. Monitor on Psychology, 36(7), , 98.
Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2011). Psychology (6th ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Little Albert. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2012, from Sweet Briar College Department of Psychology: http://www.psychology.sbc.edu/Little%20Albert.htm
West, R. (2006). Theory of Addiction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, Inc.
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