Classical Conditioning and Phobias: Insight into the Development of Phobias

Page content

What is Classical Conditioning?

Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov discovered “classical conditioning” during one of his experiments on the gastric function of dogs. It was by accident that he discovered learned behavior in these animals.

He observed that the dogs salivated before their food arrived, and at mealtimes Pavlov would use a variety of stimuli such as ringing a bell to signal its arrival. He then noticed that the dogs salivated at the sound of the bell, even if food was not presented to them. These findings convinced Pavlov that the dogs were learning to associate two different stimuli - the bell and the food. The scientist also recorded that the dogs salivated in the presence of the laboratory technician whose job it was to feed them.

Classical conditioning involves a similar process to how phobias are formed. If you have ever developed any type of phobia, then you may remember how it came about. Maybe you experienced a traumatic situation when you were little, which has remained with you over the years. This is one way that phobias develop.

Phobias form when you begin associating one stimulus with a particular feeling or negative reaction. For instance, let’s say that when you were younger you had an accident by the pool and you almost drowned. Most people would generate some fear of the water because of this and possibly a phobia.

This is because they have learned to associate the water with danger and a near-death experience. In order to stay out of danger and to feel secure in their surroundings, they avoid any type of swimming activities and large bodies of water at all costs. This is the process of how classical conditioning and phobias are formed.

While initially the neutral stimulus of water had no connection to fear, the event changed the way they viewed water.

Water is now connected to fear–and the traumatic situation experienced years ago eternally linked this negative response with this particular stimulus.

Changes in Physiological Response Make Phobias Very Real

While there may be no real danger at the moment, when they are near water, they have learned to associate water with danger and fear. In addition, even though the person is not in any immediate danger, their body will react as if it is. For example, their heart rate will increase and they will sweat profusely.

Unless the stimulus is confronted and extinguished, the person will have a hard time overcoming their phobias. This is when the individual should seek professional help so they can learn strategies to help them conquer what they fear. By implementing exposure therapy to the stimulus one might be able to defeat the overwhelming fear that classical conditioning and phobias have created.