Understanding Phobias & Addictions

Understanding Phobias & Addictions

Classical & Operant Conditioning Models

Phobias and addictions are reactions to a stimulus which are out of proportion to reality. Phobias are fears that are beyond normal nervousness and reactions to particular circumstances (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). For instance, agoraphobics can be too frightened to enter public places or to go to new places, which is a fear not grounded in any real danger. In the same manner, addictions are a behavior that is causal of an irrational desire to compulsively use some form of stimulus. For instance, drug addicts will seek to use drugs because they irrationally believe that they need the drug. While both phobias and addictions present complex social and psychological problems they might have a common root in learning through either operant or classical conditioning.

To understand these common roots one must understand the differences between operant and classical conditioning learning. Operant conditioning refers to behaviors triggered by outside stimuli. The learned behaviors created by operant conditioning are influenced by psychological forces such as reinforcements, rewards, and punishment. According to Skinner, reinforcements are motivators that increase the likeliness that certain behaviors will be repeated. Skinner distinguished two forms of reinforcement which he designated positive and negative (Chiesa, 2004). There is a common misconception attached with reinforcement in that many people mistake the connotative definitions of negative and positive to mean reward and punishment. In actuality, positive reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by applying a particular outcome when a desired behavior is performed. For instance: praise and reward. In contrast, negative reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by removal or avoidance of an outcome (Chiesa, 2004). This could include lack of praise or lack of reward. The confusion is that punishment is often seen as negative reinforcement. This is really a misnomer. Punishment really was considered a detractor from reinforcement.

Within this conceptual framework of operant conditioning, one can see how this learning model might accidentally create the learning or adoption of an addiction. Addiction in this manner can be seen as a learned behavior in that the individual who is caught in the addiction process is prone to thinking of the stimulus (e.g. work performance) as some form of positive reinforcement (drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, etc…). The affect of alcohol can be seen as a positive reinforcement in that it makes the person feel good. This idea is however illusionary in that the effect of the alcohol (the positive reinforcement) is what becomes the dominating drive rather than a particular learned behavior or task completion. An alcoholic might say that they are drinking because they had a great day at work and did their job great and they are celebrating with a drink. This becomes the positive reinforcement for having done a good job. However, over time the effect of alcohol instead of reinforcing the good performance behavior becomes the drive of a person. The same person might reward themselves with alcohol for a good job but at the same time drink because they lost their job. The behavior at this point has become an addiction because the person has conditioned themselves to drink in response to multiple stimuli or circumstances.

In the same manner, in which operant conditioning can create addictions, classical conditioning can also create phobias. “Generally speaking, classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning involves pairing an involuntary response (for example, salivation) that is usually evoked by one stimulus with a different, formerly neutral stimulus (such as a bell or a touch on the leg) (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).”

In Pavlov’s experiments this point illustrates the four basic elements of classical conditioning:

1. The first is an unconditioned stimulus, such as food, which when presented to a dog prompts a reaction of salivation.
2. The salivation reaction is the unconditioned response and is the second element and always results from the unconditioned stimulus. Thus the dog salivates whenever food is presented.
3. The third element is the neutral stimulus the ringing bell which is called the conditioned stimulus. (Which is sounded whenever food is going to be presented.)
4. Frequent pairing of the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus produces the fourth element in the classical conditioning process: the conditioned response. (The dog salivates when the bell is sounded.) (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

Within the Pavlovian framework, one might learn a phobia through conditioning. In an obvious example, one might develop a fear of being alone. This might happen if they were attacked while they were alone by an unknown assailant. The fear has translated to being alone because the person associates being alone with the attack. This is a complex learning process which many people misinterpret. Classical conditioning involves a neutral stimulus to truly be referred to as classical conditioning. In this case, being alone is the neutral stimulus and the person has learned to fear being alone because they associate it with being attacked. This strikes to the heart of how phobias can be created. But there is also a built in response or process which can help to reduce this type of learning. This process is known as extinction.

In classical conditioning, extinction refers to a process which the learned response is weakened with the presentation of the conditional stimulus without the unconditioned response. In this way, the person who has a phobia of being alone might experience extinction of the learned fear by removing fear by slowly exposing the person to being alone and making the person cognizant that the fear is unfounded. It is a slow process but can be successful in removing classical conditioning.

It should be noted that extinction also occurs within operant conditioning when a stimulus is no longer associated with reinforcement. In the case of addiction, if alcohol is removed as the reinforcement of the negative behaviors associated with the addiction. This concept highlights the fact that behavior can be altered through any form of conditioning once the true reinforcements and stimulus are discovered. This gives way to many aspects of conditioning (operant and classical) in which negative and positive outcomes can be achieved. By actively applying these models the causes and cures for many phobias and addictions can be understood better and hopefully cured.


Chiesa, M. (2004).Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy and the Science Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2009). Psychology (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Photo by Crina Parasca on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Wed, Mar 10, 2021. Understanding Phobias & Addictions Retrieved from

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