Phobias and Addictions

Phobias and AddictionS

January 20, 2014

Learning is an unending process that changes our behavior and knowledge due to experience.  Behavior is the combination of a person’s actions and mannerisms as well as their responses to stimuli in conjunction with their environment.  Through classical and operant conditioning, the two main learning processes in psychology, behavior can be modified in a positive or negative manner (Kowalski, 2011).  Although both learning processes vary, they both achieve the same desired outcome, behavior modification.   This behavior modification has the potential to be maintained to the point of extinction, but may also reemerge without the proper reinforcements (Kowalski, 2011).

Phobias are excessive, irrational fears of specific, objects, activities, or situations that may cause distress and interfere with social functioning (Phobia, 2011).   About fifty million people in the United States have been reported to suffer from at least one of the five hundred different kinds of phobias known in society (Phobias, 2008).  The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained, declares, “While the cause of phobias remain unknown and open to much speculation, some of the most frequent theories name biological, chemical, cultural, and psychological origins – or a mix of the four” (Phobias, 2008).  Classical conditioning, founded through Ivan Pavlov’s studies, is “learning a new behavior via the process of association” (McLeod, 2008).    In this process, an environmental stimulus (unconditioned stimulus) produces a natural, unlearned response (unconditioned response).  The unconditioned stimulus is paired with a neutral stimulus transforming it into a learned stimulus (conditioned stimulus).  After a few introductions of the unconditioned and conditioned stimuli, a new behavior or reaction (conditioned response) is formed (McLeod, 2008).   Classical conditionings best behavioral modification is in a person’s emotional responses.  This means, classical conditioning is able to produce a phobia in a person as seen in the popular, unethical “Little Albert” study (Kowalski, 2011).  John Watson and Rosalie Rayner conducted a study on a nine month old baby boy, Albert.  Albert was exposed to stimuli with furry, white coats.  Initially, Albert was enjoyed the items, playing with them regularly.  After introducing a loud bang that startled Albert, causing him to whimper and fall, they began to “condition a fear response in Albert” (Kowalski, 2011).  To do this, they chose a white, furry rat as the conditioned stimulus.  Each time Albert reached for the rat, they made the same loud bang, eventually bringing him to fear the rat (Kowalski, 2011).  This fear was not singular to rats, but all furry white objects, including Watson’s hair, nor was it only in the lab, but in different rooms with different characteristics, as well (Kowalski, 2011).   This study is a classic example of how phobias can be developed through classic conditioning.  Other phobias can be developed the same way.  Another example is when children and shots from the doctor’s office.  When a child receives his shots, he feels pain at the point of injection.  Over time, exposure to shots allows the child to associate pain with a needle, developing needle phobia (Kowalski, 2011).

Operant conditioning was founded by B. F. Skinner, based on “Thorndike’s Law of Effect” (McLeod, 2007).  “Thorndike’s Law of Effect states, ‘behavior is controlled by its consequences’ ” (Kowalski, 2011).  After a few studies, Skinner concluded that operant conditioning is a learning process in which behavior is modified through the use of positive and negative reinforcements (Kowalski 2011).  Skinner believed that when behavior is followed by a pleasant stimulus, the behavior will increase (Kowalski, 2011).  Addictions, because they are voluntary learned behaviors, can be developed through operant conditioning.  Wired In is an informative and support website for those battling with drug addictions.  The Director is David Clark who wrote an article, Conditioning Models of Addiction, which explains how drug addiction develops. A person is introduced to a drug.  Initially, the drug is the stimulus, however, once used it acts as a reward (positive reinforcement).  The drug causes the person to feel as if they are in a pleasant state of mind therefore, it is now a reward to the user.  Since the behavior is desired by the user, he or she repeatedly uses the drug more frequently accounting for a stronger response and modification of behavior.  If the positive reinforcement follows the new behavior immediately, it has a more powerful effect.  This increases the chances of constant repetition or new behavior. If the user does not take the drug, he or she goes through the process of withdrawing (negative reinforcement).  The negative reinforcement includes physical and psychological discomfort.  Not wanting the negative reinforcement, the person continues to use forming their addiction.  Clark informs readers that this is a learning process that may operate outside of conscious awareness meaning that there may not be decision making involved in all circumstances (Clark).

Classical and operant conditioning are learning processes with many benefits.  After the behavior is modified, it must be practiced or there is a chance of extinction.  Extinction is when the conditioned response is weakened causing the new behavior to decrease or disappear (Kowalski, 2011).  In classical conditioning, extinction occurs when the conditioned response is weakened by presenting the conditioned stimulus without the uncontrolled stimulus (Kowalski, 2011).  The “Little Albert” study was never completed, but other studies suggest that had the bang and furry white items stopped being associated with one another, the possibility of Albert’s fear going away was highly likely.  In Operant conditioning, extinction occurs when the connection between the operant and the reinforcement is broken (Kowalski, 2011).  In drug addiction, the drug is taken away and the user goes through the negative reinforcement (withdrawal symptoms) until the connection between the drug and pleasure is broken.  Both forms of conditioning must be practiced in order to avoid extinction.

Although classical and operant conditioning have the same goal, to modify a certain behavior, they have a few differences that must be learned in order to fully understand each learning process.  The major difference would be the types of behaviors conditioned.  Classical conditioning focuses on voluntary and automatic behaviors, whereas operant conditioning focuses on voluntary behavior (Cherry).  Another difference is the way in which the conditioning is conducted.  Classical conditioning uses stimuli before the behavior being conditioned and includes no incentives (Cherry).  At times, participants are not even aware that they are undergoing a conditioning process.  Operant Conditioning uses stimuli after the behavior being conditioned along with positive and negative reinforcements to strengthen or weaken the behavior (Cherry).  Operant conditioning also requires participation or it will not be successful.

Many forms of learning have been established throughout the many years of psychology’s existence.  Classical and operant conditioning are two learning process that are great for producing behavior modifications.  We see them occur in society, our homes and our careers.  In order to maintain the desired results, the behavior must be practiced or it reverts into the process of extinction.


Cherry, Kendra. (2014).  Classical vs Operant Conditioning.  Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/a/classical-vs-operant-conditioning.htm

Clark, David.  (2008).  Conditioning Models of Addiction.  Retrieved from http://www.addictioninfo.org/articles/4137/1/Conditioning-Models-of-Addiction/Page1.html

EBOOK COLLECTION: Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2011). Psychology (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Classical Conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/classical-conditioning.html

McLeod, S. A.  (2007). Skinner – Operant Conditioning.  Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

Phobia. (2011). In Dorland’s illustrated medical dictionary. Retrieved from http://search.credoreference.com.ezproxy.apollolibrary.com/content/entry/ehsdorland/phobia/0

“Phobias.” The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. Ed. Brad Steiger and Sherry Hanson Steiger. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 135-140. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.


2 thoughts on “Phobias and Addictions

  1. James says:

    Its great that phobias are so treatable but you cant say the same for addictions. People have a hard time sympathizing with someone wan an addiction. It may by that some people aren’t conditioned like others. Like smokers become conditioned to their own smoke where a nonsmoker may be very upset at just the smell of smoke in a room. Its amazing at when the human body can be conditioned to like and dislike.


    • jlo62581 says:

      Hi James!

      I think it is amazing the way the human mind works as far as stimulating and conditioning. However, I do have to disagree when you say that addiction is not treatable. Addicts have the ability to recover from an addiction and sometimes are even able to walk back in a room filled with stimuli that would trigger a relapse of their addiction. It takes a lot of internal and external motivation combined with constant reassurance and facing the root of the addiction. Additionally, the turn around for an addict is more likely if they change their original environment. For instance, Mary has lived with her family, who has an alcohol addiction. She has been motivated to make change in her life and break the cycle beginning with detoxing and completing her withdrawal. Now, she has two choices: Go back home where there are triggers of her addiction everywhere or simply change her environment. I do agree that there are people who just cannot seem to break their addiction, but I truly believe that this is due to fact that an addict is not exactly addicted to the effect of the substance, but continues to seek to avoid withdraw. After each use of a substance, a persons tolerance increases causing him or her to need more of the substance to reach the initial feeling of pleasure, which is impossible to obtain a second time. The original motivation is to reach that level of pleasure, but once the high is over, they experience withdraw. In order to avoid the unpleasant feeling, they seek out more of the substance which builds the addiction. Now the addiction is a means to avoid unpleasant feelings since the initial feeling from the substance cannot be achieved again. All in all, I think the lack of recovery is that the individual fears the feelings of normality because they are so used to the feelings of the addictive substance that they feel abnormal if sober. I also think that if an addict received full motivational support from those around him and was made to feel self sufficient and confident, they would be able to handle the temporary withdraw and begin a new journey in life. I am a student, but I this my take on addiction.


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