Classical conditioning/ systematic desensitization essay

“Use classical conditioning principles to explain the development of phobias, and describe how systematic desensitization can be used to overcome fears and phobias. Illustrate with examples.” This essay explores the practices of classical conditioning and systematic desensitization in relation to phobias and fears. John Watson proposed that the process of classical conditioning was able to ‘’explain all aspects of human psychology’’. Classical conditioning is the form of learning in which one stimulus is paired with another so that the organism learns a relationship between the stimuli.

Systematic desensitization, also known as graduated exposure therapy is a type of behaviour therapy used to help overcome phobias and other anxiety disorders. There are 3 stages of systematic desensitization: first the identity of an anxiety must be found and this encourages stimulus hierarchy. The second step is the learning of relaxation or coping techniques to help them through the anxiety.

Once the individual has been taught these techniques and skills, they are then used in the third step to react towards and overcome situations in the established hierarchy of fears.

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The target of these steps is for the individual to learn how to cope with, and overcome the fear of the hierarchy. Phobias can be acquired through classical conditioning by pairing a neutral stimulus with something that really causes pain. One of the most famous examples of classical conditioning was Watson and Rayner (1920) experiment in which a fear response was conditioned in a young boy known as ‘Little Albert’. The child initially showed no fear of a white rat.

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However, any time that Albert went to touch the creature, a researcher struck a steel bar with a hammer producing a loud noise causing Albert to cry. This pairing was repeated several times and by the end the child would cry when the rat was present with or without the noise.

Albert showed intense fear the moment the rat came into view. This led him to exhibit fear of other furry animals e.g. Albert would start to cry any time a rabbit (which was newly introduced to the experiment) went near him. This experiment showed that classical conditioning can establish strong fearful responses. This experiment also provided insight into how some other phobias develop. This experiment shows how fears can form through classical conditioning. In many cases, a single pairing of a neutral stimulus and a frightening experience can lead to a lasting phobia. For example if the neutral stimulus was a dog and the frightening experience was the subject being bit by the dog, then the subject would maintain a lasting phobia and become scared of dogs.

Compare a spider for example (as using a dog might confuse) to the bell in Pavlov’s classical conditioning model with the dogs. The spider does not cause anxiety or fear in a person in the same way that bells do not cause dogs to salivate. However, when the spider is paired with afearful thought that it may bite and kill the person; subsequently the person will learn to fear the spider because of the irrational thought that is now automatically associated with the sight or even thought of spiders. The spider is now paired with the thought that causes anxiety and fear. Just as pairing the bell with the food taught the dogs to salivate when they heard the bell. The sight of the spider will continue to cause anxiety until the person can disassociate the fearful irrational thought with the sight or thought of the spider which is done through means of graduated exposure. Phobia responses can remain permanent unless the individual is subjected to the extinction process.

This is where systematic desensitisation comes to the forefront in the essay. Systematic desensitisation is a therapeutic intervention that reduces the established link between anxiety and objects or situations that are typically fear-producing.Systematic desensitisation consists of two compounds, counterconditioning and exposure. Counterconditioning is competing with the response to fear e.g. deep muscle relaxation to sooth the individual. Exposure is the extinction of effect of feared stimulus which is systematic and safe exposure to object of fear. Therefore Systematic desensitisation is also known as gradual exposure as said above. Most common fears treated with Systematic Desensitisation include fear of public speaking, fear of flying, stage fright and animal phobias. To demonstrate the anxiety hierarchy we will take a fear of injections for example.

The subject will be carefully led through this hierarchy in stage by stage format. First they will be shown a picture of a needle, and then they will be taken to the waiting room of the doctors/hospital followed by the consulting room. Once the subject is calm in the consulting room, they will be shown the needle from the distance or maybe the nurse holding the needle and the more comfortable the subject is, the closer the needle will start to go towards them. Once the patient gets to this stage of the hierarchy the fear is almost gone and the real aspect of receiving the needle becomes less fearful. In facing more intense situations and developing a pairing of relaxation with the feared object, relaxation rather than anxiety becomes associated with the source of their anxiety.

Therefore, a gradual desensitisation occurs, with relaxation replacing alarm. However, because of the potential high risk for extreme panic reactions to occur which could in fact increase the phobia, the technique needs to be conducted by a trained professional. Desensitisation is an effective form of therapy. Individuals who have suffered from fears and phobias now have positive responses and are now able to resume daily activities that may have been previously avoided before. In 1998 Capafons, Sosa & Avero demonstrated that Systematic Desensitisation was successful in overcoming fear of flying. The subjects at first were taught to relax and imagine about flying. After, the hierarchy for travelling by plane was set up and then was presented along with the focus on stopping negative thoughts.

The success of the project was measured by self-report, interview and recording biological factors and the 20 individuals showed significantly reduced fear. Systematic Desensitization is a slow process. Although, research suggests that the longer the technique takes the more effective it is. However, it only treats the symptoms of the disorder, not the underlying cause. By using classical conditioning it is easy to see the development of phobias from connecting certain stimuli to certain responses. Also it is interesting to research and find out about systematic desensitisation. It is highly effective when the problem is a learned anxiety of specific objects/situations. To conclude although classical conditioning can be used to explain the development of fears and phobias it can also be cancelled out by means of systematic desensitisation.

Gleitman. H, Gross. J, Reisberg.D ‘’Psychology 8th edition’’ Norton, (London 2011)

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Classical conditioning/ systematic desensitization essay. (2016, May 11). Retrieved from

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