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Addictions and Phobias Through Classical and Opperant Conditioning Essay

Phobias and Addictions through Classical and Operant Conditioning

This paper will explore how phobias and addictions are formed through both classical and operant conditioning and show just as addictions and phobias can be formed, they can also become extinct. Classical conditioning is the use of a conditional stimulus such as a person, place or object that forms an unconditional response. An unconditional response is one that does not require thought, but instead, is a natural reaction of the body (Kowalski & Weston, 2010). Irrational fear of an object or a situation is called a phobia. Phobia’s can make a person become paralyzed with fear for no apparent reason. Phobia’s can be created by putting together an object or a situation with an irrational thought or feeling. Singularly, the object or situation does not provoke a fearful reaction, put once a fearful, irrational thought is associated with the stimulus, the object or the situation creates a fearful response. Phobia’s can be created by classical conditioning. This happens when a stimulus is repeatedly paired with a negative reaction. Over time, the brain begins to associate the stimulus with the negative reaction and creates a fight or flight response.

Take for example agoraphobia, the fear of being in certain places such as crowds, public transportation or being outside their home without another person. At some point, while doing one of these activities, the individual probably had a panic attack. In his or hers mind, the association between the place and the panic attack has started to take hold. The next time the individual returns to the place or activity, he or she may become worried that he or she will again have a panic attack. The stress from the worry may then elicit another panic attack, which then conditions the brain to have the same fearful reaction to the stimulus. The individual then becomes extremely stressed when faced with the stimulus, or he or she avoids the place or activity completely. This is how agoraphobia is created through classical conditioning. Operant conditioning is a reinforcement of behavior that is controlled by the environment rather than then being a natural reaction of the body (Kowalski & Weston, 2010). When an individual avoids a situation or an activity because of even the slightest fear, this reinforces the effects and the intensity of the fear. It can become a phobia through operant conditioning. A phobia created by operant conditioning takes place when the negative reaction to the stimulus is reinforced by the avoidance of that stimulus.

Over time, the negativity escalates and the individual will have a much harder time dealing with and overcoming his or her fear. While classical and operant conditioning can create phobias, they can also cause addictions. According to the book “Addictions: A Comprehensive Guidebook” (McCrady & Epstein, 1999) classically conditioned addictions are created when the mind begins to associate a person place or object to the stimulus of the addiction such as shopping, drugs or food. These associations then begin to have a trigger effect and that causes the cravings or urges for the stimulus. With operant conditioning, a person is conditioned to use his or her stimulus of choice because of the feelings or emotions that are aroused due to the use of the individual’s stimulus.

These feelings are a positive reinforcement of his or hers behavior directly related to the use of that person’s “drug” of choice. In the case of an individual who is addicted to food, if he or she is feeling upset or anxious, they may choose to binge on food and in the moment, start to feel less anxious or less irritable. These feelings are a positive reinforcement of their choice to binge. Thus they are conditioning themselves to feel better through the use of food bingeing. This is operant conditioning.

Just as classical and operant behaviors are able to take hold, they can also become extinct. In the case of phobia’s or addiction’s, the classical conditioning extinction process starts to take place when the body’s natural reaction, i.e. panic attacks or cravings, start to take place without the person, place or object being posed. Eventually the mind starts to disassociate the original stimulus and the response, leading to the extinction of the classically conditioned behavior. Much in the same way as classical conditioning becomes extinct; operant conditioning begins the extinction process when the reinforcement of the behavior no longer takes place. For the binge eater, if they no longer are comforted by the food, the food starts to become less effectual as a means to control feelings bringing about the extinction of the addiction (Kowalski & Weston, 2010).

Simply put, phobia’s and addictions can be learned and reinforced by way of conditioning and also can be extinguished by lack of the same conditioning.


Kowalski, R., & Weston, D. (2010). Learning. In R. Kowalski, & D. Weston, Psychology 6th Edition (pp. 162-194). Hoboken: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Inc.

McCrady, B. S., & Epstein, E. E. (1999). Etiology of Alchohol and Other Drugs. In B. S. McCrady, & E. E. Epstein, Addictions: A Comprehensive Guidebook (p. 61). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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