Phobias and Addictions

Phobias and Addictions

            In the United States each year, Comer (2005) proclaims 9 percent of the population displays the symptoms of a specific phobia, “an irrational fear of a specific object or situation” (Kowalski & Westen, 2009, p. 161). Comer (2005) lists some specific phobias including claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), agoraphobia (fear of crowds or public places), and acrophobia (fear of heights). Many people do not know why they develop a fear of such objects or situations, because this response was acquired through a form of learning that is more automatic and unconscious. Phobias are only classified as such when the irrational fear causes significant distress or impairment in the normal functioning of a person’s life (Comer, 2005).

Another condition that can cause significant distress or impairment is addiction, a condition in which a person has become dependent on some type of external stimulus that brings with it pleasurable sensations that if removed, can cause physiological and behavioral withdrawal symptoms that impair normal psychological functioning.  “In any given year, 7.3 percent of all adults in the United States display a pattern of … [addiction]” (Comer, 2005, p. 281).

These two emotional difficulties, phobias and addictions have a genetic basis that predisposes some to develop them easier than others and are both conditioned through classical and operant procedures. For instance, phobias of spiders and snakes are more likely to develop than phobias of ceiling fans and refrigerators because it helped our ancestors survive; spiders and snakes could potentially kill them, so adapting a fear response ensured that our ancestors would be cautious of such danger. When it comes to the genetic basis of addiction, Kowalski and Westen (2009) reveal that “children of alcoholics are four times as likely to develop alcoholism [than] children of nonalcoholics” (p. 528). Before we go any further into how people acquire phobias and addictions through learning, it is helpful to understand how the human brain relies on its senses to automatically learn. Following this information we will discuss two forms of associative learning, classical and operant conditioning, and how they affect the development of phobias and addictions. We will conclude with an explanation of extinction and how both types of conditioning apply it.

Perceptions of Sensory Learning

            As Humans, we receive information about our environment through sensory receptors in the brain wired for visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, proprioceptive, information about the body’s position and movement, and vestibular senses, which receive information about the body’s position in space by sensing gravity and movement (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). Without these senses, humans would find it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to learn; for example, a person who is born blind and deaf cannot hear and see what others around him or her are doing, thereby removing the visual and auditory observations that every human relies on to learn as infants. Once our senses receive the information from environmental stimuli, the brain begins to form perceptions to organize, store, and retrieve the information quickly at a later time, which it does by automatically associating various stimuli with other stimuli sharing similar characteristics (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

Associative Learning

The foundation of associative learning rests on two types of learning: Classical and operant conditioning. Nearing the end of the nineteenth century, a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov accidentally noticed that his dogs began to salivate when hearing the preparation of their food, causing him to associate a bell tone just before preparing the food until the bell tone produced the same response as preparing the food, salivation (Kowalski & Westen, 2009); this led to our understanding of classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning is “a procedure by which a previously neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response after it is paired with a stimulus that automatically elicits that response” (Kowalski & Westen, 2009, p. 158). In the classical conditioning of Pavlov’s dogs, the bell tone was a previously neutral stimulus that alone came to elicit a salivation response after being paired with a stimulus (preparation of food) that automatically elicited the salivation response. Kowalski and Westen (2009) explains that before any conditioning took place, the unconditioned stimulus (meat) elicited the unconditioned response (salivation), then during conditioning, a neutral stimulus (bell tone) was introduced seconds before the unconditioned stimulus (meat) which produced the unconditioned response (salivation), and after conditioning the previously neutral stimulus, the bell tone became a conditioned stimulus that produced the conditioned response of salivation.

Classical conditioning occurs as a result of two environmental stimuli becoming associated during a heightened sense of emotional arousal (i.e., excitement, joy, fear, sadness, or depression). Let’s take the case of little Albert: When little Albert had a bar loudly banged behind his head, it exceeded his absolute auditory sensory threshold, “the minimum amount of energy needed for an observer to sense that a stimulus is present” (Kowalski & Westen, 2009, p. 109), which produced a state of alarm and fear; causing what was in Albert’s direct visual senses at the same time, the white rat, to become associated with this state of fear that generalized into a phobia of white furry objects (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

Operant conditioning, “learning that results when an organism associates a response that occurs spontaneously with a particular environmental [consequence]” (Kowalski & Westen, 2009, p. 167), relies on rewards and punishments that either increase or decrease the likelihood that a certain behavior will recur. For instance, when a child’s parents spontaneously reward him or her for good grades, the parents are providing positive reinforcement that increases the probability that the child will get good grades again; if the parents decide to use negative reinforcement to increase the likelihood that their child will get good grades again, they may remove an aversive stimulus, such as removing the child’s chores for a week (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). Just as there is positive and negative reinforcement, there is also positive and negative punishment that decreases the chances of a behavior recurring. Let’s look once again at the example of parenting; when a child brings home bad grades, parents may decide to use positive punishment in which they give the child extra chores to reduce the likelihood that the child will bring home bad grades again, or they may decide to make use of negative punishment by taking away the child’s phone and friend privileges (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

These operant procedures are also at work in developing an addiction. Addictive behavior is positively reinforced by the perceived pleasure that follows as a consequence from the object of addiction. Once the body conditions a tolerance through repeated exposure, the addiction becomes negatively reinforced by removal of aversive withdrawal symptoms, making addictive behavior more likely to occur.

Extinguishing Phobias and Addictions

According to Kowalski and Westen (2009), “extinction in classical conditioning refers to the process by which a conditioned response is weakened by presentation of the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus” (p. 163). In little Albert’s case, had the white rat (CS) been presented without the loud noise (UCS), after a few sessions the conditioned fear response would have been weakened and eventually extinguished.

In operant conditioning, “extinction occurs if enough conditioning trials pass in which the [behavior] is not followed by the consequence previously associated with it” (Kowalski & Westen, 2009, p. 171). When it comes to addiction, the process of removing the repeated behavior that classically conditions the body’s tolerance to physiologically prepare for the pleasure associated with the object of addiction will begin extinguishing the positive reinforcement of the desired consequence. After enough time has passed, the removal of the repeated behavior will remove the conditioned environmental stimuli that alerted the body to physiologically prepare for the pleasure of the addiction, thereby reducing both the body’s tolerance and negatively reinforced withdrawal symptoms.







Comer, R. J. (2005). Fundamentals of abnormal psychology (4th ed.).New York: Worth.

Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2009). Psychology (5th ed.).Hoboken,NJ: Wiley.



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