Behavioural Approach: Explaining Phobias

– The behavioural approach emphasises the role of learning in the acquisition of behaviour.


– In 1960 Hobart Mowrer proposed the two-process model based on the behavioural approach to phobias.

– This starts with that phobias are acquired (learned in the first place) by classical conditioning and then continue because of operant conditioning.


– Classical conditioning involves learning to associate something of which we already have no fear (neutral stimulus) with something that already triggers a fear response (unconditioned stimulus).


In 1920 John Watson created a phobia in a 9-month-old baby called ‘Little Albert’.

– Albert showed no unusual anxiety at the start of the study.

– When shown a white rat he tried to play with it.

– However, the experimenters then set out to give Albert a phobia.

– Whenever the rat was presented they made a loud, frightening noise by banging an iron bar close to Albert’s ear.

– This noise is an unconditioned stimulus which creates an unconditioned response of fear.

– When the rat a neutral stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus are encountered close together in time the NS becomes associated with the UCS and both now produce the fear response

– Albert became frightened when he saw the rat.

– The rat is now a conditioned response.

– This condition then generalised to similar objects.

– For example, he displayed distress to the sight of a non-white rabbit, a fur coat and Watson wearing a Santa Claus beard made out of cotton balls.


– Responses acquired by classical conditioning usually tend to decline over time.

– However, phobias are often long lasting.

–  Mowrer had explained this as the result of operant conditioning.

– This takes place when out behaviour is reinforced or punished.

– Reinforcement tends to increase the frequency of a behaviour.

– This is true of both negative and positive reinforcement.

– Mowrer suggested that whenever we avoid a phobic stimulus we successfully escape the fear and anxiety that we would have suffered if we had remained there.

– This reduction in fear reinforces the avoidance behaviour and so the phobia is maintained.

– This is an example of negative reinforcement.



Good explanation

– The theory went beyond Watson and Rayner’s concept of classical conditioning.

– It explained how phobias could be maintained over time and this had important implications for therapies because it explains why patients need to be exposed to their feared stimulus.

– Once a patient is prevented from practising their avoidance behaviour the behaviour ceases to be reinforced and so it declines.

– The application to therapy is a strength of the two-process model.

The Importance of Classical Conditioning

– The two process model is supported by research asking people about their phobias

– People with phobias often do recall a specific incident when their phobia appeared (eg being bit by a dog)

– This demonstrates the role of classical conditioning in developing phobias, but other processes may be involved in their maintenance


Incomplete Explanation

– Some aspects of phobic behaviour that require further explaining

– In 2007 Bounton points out, that evolutionary factors probably have an important role in phobias but the two-factor theory does not mention this.

– For example, we easily acquire phobias of things that have been a source of danger in our evolutionary past, such as fears of snakes or the dark and this is called biological preparedness.

– However, it is quite rare to develop a fear of cars or guns, which are actually much more dangerous to most of us today than spiders or snakes.

– Presumably this is because they have only existed very recently and so we are not biologically prepared to learn fear responses towards them

– This shows that there is more to acquiring a phobia than conditioning and this is a problem for the Two-process model