Phobias and Addictions in Classical and Operant Conditioning
August 16, 2010
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His original experiment was between dogs, a meal, and a bell. He tested the bell with every time he fed the dog. Every time he fed the dog, he would ring a bell. As he continued the experiment he began to notice that every time it was time to feed the dog would salivate. Over time the dog began to salivate when it heard the ring of a bell. Through classical conditioning the dog would salivate at the sound of a bell believing that it was time to be fed. He associated that sound with food.
Many of our fears and anxieties may have been classically conditioned, as in a fear of snakes. Someone with these fears and anxieties has a condition known as a phobia. A phobia is an irrational fear of an object, situation, or activity that is out of proportion to the actual danger it poses. Because phobias create so much anxiety that they interfere with normal functioning, they are classified as anxiety disorders.
With a specific phobia, the person is presented with some object, for example, a spider. This object can be compared to Pavlov’s bell. The spider doesn’t cause anxiety in the human body, just like bells don’t cause dogs to salivate. Indeed, many people are not afraid of spiders. But something else, for example, a thought like, “What if the spider bites me and I die?” causes the anxiety, similar to the food causing the salivating. Or it could be a deeply encoded natural human tendency to fear insects plus a genetic predisposition for strong anxiety reactions that is at the root of the fear. Whatever the cause of the fear, each time a spider is presented anxiety results. Eventually, the mere thought of a spider is enough to trigger the bodily response, just as the bell triggered the salivating. This is how a phobia is learned through classical conditioning.
If the person with the phobia merely thinks of going someplace where there might be spiders, the person experiences uncomfortable fear and anxiety, as if he or she were already there with a bunch of spiders. In contrast, when he or she thinks about avoiding the situation entirely, he or she feels better and the anxiety goes away. This is how classical conditioning and avoidance of the feared object makes a phobia worse.
Phobias may have several different causes, including genetics or childhood trauma, but classical conditioning seems to play an important role in either causing or reinforcing simple phobias, or both. Through conditioning, people repeatedly associate the feared object with terrible anxiety, strengthening the fear. This can spill over into daily life, so much so that the person with the phobia goes to great lengths to avoid numerous situations with any remote possibility of encountering spiders. This can become a time consuming preoccupation that can cause intense suffering and pervasive avoidance patterns that interfere with life.
Operant conditioning forms the premise that behaviors are shaped by their consequences. It is fundamentally learned behavior,...