Behavioural Approach to Explaining Phobias

The behaviourist approach sees all behaviour as observable and learned. When explaining phobias, it focuses on the behaviours without considering cognitive or emotional aspects.

Mowrer's two-process model explains the development and persistence of anxiety disorders, including phobias. According to Mowrer (1960), phobias are initially acquired through classical conditioning, where a neutral stimulus (NS) becomes associated with an unconditioned stimulus (UCS), resulting in a conditioned response (CR) of fear. This conditioning generalises to similar objects.

Maintenance of phobias occurs through operant conditioning. Avoiding the phobic stimulus reduces anxiety, acting as a reward. Operant conditioning reinforces avoidance behaviour by reducing anxiety, perpetuating the phobia.

Evaluation of the behavioural approach to explaining phobias (A03)

+ Supporting Study= In 1920, Watson and Rayner conducted an experiment involving an 11-month-old boy named Little Albert. Initially, Albert was a calm child without any fears. The researchers aimed to instill a phobia of rats by exposing Albert to a rat and simultaneously striking a steel bar behind his head to create a loud noise. This procedure was repeated three times, and the same was done a week later. Subsequently, when Albert was shown the rat again, he started crying. Through these actions, Watson and Rayner successfully conditioned a fear response in Albert using classical conditioning.


— Limited Explanatory Power= The two-process model overlooks cognitive factors. For instance, irrational beliefs could lead to the development of a phobia without the necessity of a frightening encounter.



Now have a go at the revision quiz below to see how much you can recall.


1. What is the primary focus of the behaviourist approach when explaining phobias?

2. According to Mowrer's two-process model, how are phobias initially acquired?

3. In Mowrer's two-process model, what is the role of the neutral stimulus (NS) in the acquisition of phobias?

4. How does operant conditioning contribute to the maintenance of phobias, according to Mowrer's two-process model?

5. What did Watson and Rayner's experiment with Little Albert aim to demonstrate?

6. What is the main limitation mentioned in the evaluation of the behavioural approach to explaining phobias?

7. According to Mowrer's two-process model, how does avoidance behaviour contribute to the persistence of phobias?

8. In Mowrer's two-process model, what is the significance of classical conditioning concerning the development of phobias, particularly regarding the role of the unconditioned stimulus (UCS)?

9. In Watson and Rayner's experiment, what did they use to create a fear response in Little Albert?

10. What factor, disregarded by the two-process model, is suggested in the evaluation to potentially lead to the development of a phobia without the necessity of a frightening encounter?

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