This experiment showed that Albert developed a fear of a white rat through associating a neutral stimulus with a fear provoking stimulus. However some individuals may have inherited a high level of physiological reactivity. The extent to which the individual is classically conditioned to a neutral stimulus could be determined by this physiological reactivity. In addition, animal phobia is more likely to become classically conditioned because there is preparedness for survival from the EEA, other stimuli may not become classically conditioned. Davison found phobias of neutral stimuli cannot be easily conditioned as Albert’s experiment suggested; he tried to condition phobias of neutral stimuli in a laboratory but had little success.
However being in an experimental setting may have prevented the participants from behaving naturally; therefore the fear was not conditioned. The behaviourist concept of stimulus generalising suggest that a fear response to one thing can be generalised to other things, and as predicted by the behavioural concept Albert generalised the phobia of white rats to other furry white objects such as cotton wool, fur and white beards.
However his reactivity may predispose him to the anxious disorder. Due to Albert being a child he may have developed his fear of the rat because he was immediately able to recognise the appearance of the animal is least like a human, he feared other objects that were similar to the rat because he developed a cognitive bias unconsciously. Also the research evidence on phobias being a result of traumatic experiences lacks reliability, as shown by Davison it is difficult to replicate Watson and Rayners experiment; although it was found 50% of people suffering from certain phobias recalled a traumatic experience that had triggered their phobia, therefore supporting classical conditioning. The other 50% of phobics that cannot recall an unpleasant experience initiating their phobia could be due to repression of the expression.
The development of phobias can also be explained by Mowrer’s two-process theory, this involves operant conditioning. The first stage of the process involves classical conditioning, for example linking the white rat and the loud noise. The second stage of the theory involves operant conditioning as avoidance of the phobic stimulus reduces the fear response and is thus reinforcing, therefore the fear is maintained and a phobia is developed. Behavioural explanations are reductionist; they oversimplify concepts to one specific thing and ignore other factors. The explanation is also deterministic because it suggests behaviour is controlled by the environment and ignores the individuals own ability to control their behaviour.
Social learning theory explains fear as not being intentional, the learning of the fear happens at an unconscious cognitive level. Evidence of modelling was found in monkeys that observed other monkeys displaying a fearful reaction to a snake; these monkeys developed a phobia of snakes because it is a harmful stimulus. Bandura proposed phobias can be learnt through observational learning, modelling and direct reinforcement. There are other psychological explanations of anxious disorders.
The cognitive explanation suggests faulty thinking is the cause of phobias. Beck and Emery conceded that anxious people avail cognitive biases, which causes them exaggerate the threats posed by stimuli. This has face validity because phobics have reported high level of anxiety and it is plausible that phobics find their environment a threatening place. Clark’s cognitive theory of panic disorder suggests individuals suffering from panic disorder tend to interpret their bodily functions over sensitively i.e. they react to their bodily functions in a life-threatening way.
This makes them more anxious and increases their catastrophic thoughts. However it cannot be identified if cognitive biases are the cause of phobias or if the phobias are the cause of the individuals’ cognitive biases. Also the over consciousness of bodily response could be due to physiological reactivity of the individual and it maybe the underlying cause of the fear. The explanation is description rather than explanatory; it describes the thought patterns of the individual but does not explain why the individual is having these thought patterns.
The social explanation is another psychological explanation of anxiety disorders. According to this explanation parental rearing styles have an impact on the development of phobias. It has been found that parental styles that are high in control and overprotection and low in affection are linked to social phobia and agoraphobia. However accounts of parental styles are retrospective. Another limitation is all that has been obtained is correlations between rearing styles and anxiety disorders, correlations do not prove causality.
There is evidence that phobics experience more serious life events before the onset of the anxiety disorder, in Kleiner and Marshall’s study, 84% of agoraphobics reported to have experienced family problems prior to their first panic attack. Finlay and Brown found a difference between anxious and depressed patients in terms of life events they had experienced in the 12 months prior to the onset of their disorder. Both groups had experienced an above average number of life events, but anxious patients tended to have experienced danger events, whereas depressed patients experienced loss events. However life events may be a factor of variables that developed the disorders.
In conclusion the behavioural explanation claims phobias are developed as a result of classical and operant conditioning, this is called the two-process theory. The experiment with Albert demonstrated classical conditioning. However, research indicates that phobias do not depend on having previously encountered a frightening situation, and individuals that have experienced frightening encounters do not necessarily develop a phobia.
Social learning theory is a behavioural explanation that may apply to some specific phobias. The cognitive explanation suggests that the individual suffering from the phobia have cognitive biases which cause the individual to exaggerate the threat posed by the stimuli. Some individuals may react to their bodily responses in a catastrophic way more than other individuals because they have a higher physiological reactivity. The social explanation can be used to explain the development of phobias through parental rearing styles and life events. The main problem with obtaining information about parental rearing styles may be the individual perceives the style differently from how it actually was.
The main problem with obtaining information on life events is that it was in the past the so remembering them may be distorted and some events may have been forgotten. All three accounts of psychological explanations can be used to describe the development of phobias; however there are other explanations of anxiety disorders that are not psychological such as the evolutionary explanation. According to preparedness argument phobias are adaptive because they are a fear of things that would have been a threat to humans in the EEA. The evolutionary explanation is a counter perspective of the conditioning explanation and may explain why replications of Watson and Rayner’s experiment failed to condition phobias to neutral stimuli.