The behavioristic approach not only explains how mental disorders, such as phobias, might be learned, it also suggests how they might be treated. In order to understand why these behavioristic treatments may or may not work, we first need to learn about the acquisition, extinction, and spontaneous recovery of conditioned responses.
Let’s use the example of classical conditioning in the study by Watson and Rayner (1920). In this example, the sight of a rat (the CS) is paired with a loud noise (the UCS), which reflexively produces an anxiety response (the UCR). Let’s say that, in a sample of 100 people, we pair the CS and UCS in each of ten trials (a trial is a single presentation of a CS or a CS-UCS pairing), with each trial separated by one hour. We expect that, for this sample of 100 people, the average amount of anxiety to the rat (the CR) will increase over the ten trials. The initial learning of the association between the CS and UCS, which is indicated by the development of a CR, is called acquisition. This phase is represented in the first ten trials of Figure 1.
Have you ever wondered why advertisers show the same commercial over and over again? If each showing of the commercial is thought of as one CS-UCS pairing (one trial), then repeated showings allows for a larger number of pairings of the CS (hearing about and seeing the product) and the UCS (perhaps seeing attractive people using the product) in order to acquire the CR (positive feelings for the product).
A large number of CS-UCS pairings may not always be needed for the acquisition of a strong CR. In fact, some evidence suggests that a strong association between a CS and a UCS may develop even after only one trial. For example, one pairing of the sight and sound of a bee (the CS) with the pain of a bee sting (the UCS) often is all that is required for a child to learn to fear bees (the CR).
After a strong CR is acquired, is it necessary to continue pairing the CS and UCS? You might think that, now that the CS reflexively elicits a strong CR, the UCS no longer is needed to maintain the CR. For example, people who develop a strong fear of bees after being stung by one often continue to fear bees for years, perhaps even for the rest of their lives, even if they never were stung again. Thus, it is reasonable to ask, what would happen to a CR if the UCS no longer followed the CS? In the bee example, this amounts to asking, what would happen to the fear of bees if the sight of a bee never again was followed by a bee sting? In most cases, when the CS is presented over many trials with no UCS following it, the strength of the CR declines. Let’s say that we had a sample of 100 people who had acquired a fear of bees after being stung by one. If we had each person repeatedly experience the sight of bees but made sure that he or she was never stung, the average amount of anxiety to bees should decrease over trials. In many cases, the CR eventually disappears when the CS is presented alone for a number of trials (see Trials 11-20, the red line, in Figure 1). The decline of the CR in the absence of the UCS is called extinction. The fact that extinction generally occurs when a CS no longer is followed by a UCS suggests that, in order to maintain a strong CR, the CS must continue to be paired with the UCS.
Does the extinction of a CR mean that the association between the CS and UCS acquired earlier now has disappeared? For example, if Little Albert had been presented with a rat alone until his conditioned anxiety response had disappeared, would his association of the rat with the loud noise have been eliminated (see Jones, 1924)? Not necessarily. In fact, Figure 1 shows what often happens when the CS is presented again after some time has passed since the extinction of the CR (see Trials 21-25, the green line): the CR typically comes back, although often to a lesser extent than just after its initial acquisition. In general, after a period of time has elapsed since the last presentation of a CS, an extinguished CR will reappear — a phenomenon called spontaneous recovery. Spontaneous recovery of a CR shows that the association between the CS and the UCS must not have been eliminated during the extinction phase. In short, extinction did not cause an “unlearning” of the CS-UCS association.
If an individual did not “unlearn” the association, then why did the individual’s CR disappear by the end of the extinction phase? It’s difficult to know for certain, but perhaps a more intuitive example might help us to understand what may be happening. When you hear someone yell the words “watch out,” what do you do? You probably feel frightened and then bend down while placing your hands over your head. Why do you do this? The words themselves (“watch out”) should not induce fear. In fact, they seem to be suggesting that you should look somewhere “out there.” It is likely that you acquired this fear response from a prior experience or experiences. One way this might have happened is illustrated in Figure 2:
In this example, hearing the shouted words, “watch out,” is a CS that was followed by a UCS of the pain felt when getting hit, perhaps in the head, with an object (such as a baseball). The UCS reflexively causes a UCR of emotional distress. After the CS and UCS are paired some number of times, a CR of anxiety is acquired to the shouted words, “watch out.” Thus, classical conditioning may explain the acquisition of a fear response to these words in many people.
Now, how could we extinguish the CR of anxiety to the shouted words, “watch out”? In extinction, we present the CS alone for a number of trials. In order to extinguish the fear response to these words in an individual, therefore, we would need to have someone yell, “watch out,” over and over again, and make sure that this person was not hit by an object. In fact, someone probably has done this to you at some point during childhood: children seem to enjoy scaring others and this is an easy way to do so. What happened to your learned fear in this case? It probably decreased and perhaps even disappeared over the time period in which the other child continued to yell, “watch out.” In other words, the CR was extinguished.
What would happen if the other child then waited some time (perhaps an hour) and then yelled, “watch out,” again? If this has ever happened to you, you probably found that you again showed a fear response to the words. That is, you showed spontaneous recovery of the CR. So, what was going on inside your head while the fear response was being extinguished? You probably merely learned to suppress (inhibit) any observable fear, but this did not cause you to “unlearn” the association between hearing the words (CS) and getting hit by an object (UCS). To generalize, extinction does not lead immediately to the elimination of an association between a CS and a UCS. On the other hand, if the extinction procedure is repeated on several occasions, elimination of the association is likely to occur eventually, which suggests how extinction may be used to treat phobias and other mental disorders that involve maladaptive emotional responses to stimuli.
The Treatment of Phobias
If you were a therapist using the behavioristic approach to treat mental disorders, how would you help a client get rid of his phobic fear of bees — a fear that first developed during childhood when he was stung in the foot? Based on the discussion of the extinction process above, we would predict that having him experience bees (the CS) without being stung by them (the UCS) probably would decrease, and perhaps eliminate, his phobia. This is called exposure therapy because clients are exposed repeatedly to a feared object, event, or situation (the CS) until their anxiety (the CR) is reduced or eliminated.
How would you use exposure therapy with your client? Perhaps you first would have him imagine being in a roomful of bees that never stung him. Then you might have him sit next to a cage of bees. Then you might have him wear protective clothing and go into an apiary (a place where beehives are kept for their honey). In short, you would need to find ways of presenting the CS (bees) without the UCS (getting stung). If you are succesful in finding effective ways to do this, the man’s phobic symptoms should improve over time. In fact, of those completing exposure therapy for phobias, about 80% experience significant improvement.
What do you think might be a limitation of exposure therapy? There are several limitations: people may be too afraid to finish therapy, you can’t always prevent the UCS, etc. But probably the most important limitation is that, unless the person keeps re-experiencing the CS without the UCS, spontaneous recovery of the fear often occurs. If spontaneous recovery does occur, the CR will have to be re-extinguished. Eventually, by providing such “booster sessions,” the phobic fears of many people are reduced significantly or eliminated. In fact, exposure therapy for phobias is one of the most effective psychotherapies for mental disorders.
Study Questions for Section 4-12
- What is acquisition? Please give an example from your own life of the acquisition of a CR.
- With respect to the concept of acquisition, why might advertisements on television be shown over and over again?
- What is an example from your own life when you learned a conditioned emotional response (such as disgust or fear) in only one or a couple of trials?
- What is extinction? Please give an example from your own life of the extinction of a CR.
- If you had a dog who is afraid of men because a previous male owner often yelled at the dog, how would you get the dog to no longer fear men? (In this example, what is the CS, UCS, CR, and UCR?)
- What is spontaneous recovery? Please give an example from your own life of the spontaneous recovery of a CR.
- When would extinction lead to the elimination of the association between a CS and a UCS?
- If the dog in Question 5 does not come into contact with any men for several months after having its fear of men extinguished, and then does so when a repairman enters the house, what probably will happen? How could you get this dog to (probably) never fear men again?
- What type of phobia therapy makes use of extinction?
- How successful is this type of therapy?
- What is a major limitation of this type of therapy?
- How would you deal with this limitation if you were a therapist?
Jones, M. C. (1924). A laboratory study of fear: The case of Peter. Pedagogical Seminary, 31, 308-315. Retrieved October 16, 2011, from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Jones/
Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14. Retrieved October 13, 2011, from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Watson/emotion.htm