Monday, February 28, 2011

Phobias and Addictions

Phobias and Addictions

"Learning refers to any enduring change in the way an organism responds based on its experience" (Kowalski & Weston, 2009, p. 157). In people and animals, a significant amount of learning takes place by making associations between the environment and making choices according to consequences. According to Kowalski and Westen (2009), learning theory, the concept that learning is adaptive and shapes behavior, forms the fundamental concepts of the behaviorist perspective. Known together as associative learning, classical and operant conditioning are two common, yet distinct ways in which humans learn behavior.

Sometimes the learning takes place without the learner's awareness, yet the products of this education can be long lasting and difficult to change or modify. The results of both classical and operant conditioning contribute to the individual's ability to thrive and function normally and adapt to the complexities of human society, yet two devastating emotional difficulties can develop through this conditioning: phobias and addictions (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

Phobias and their development

      A phobia is a constant irrational fear of an object, situation, or activity that the person feels impelled to avoid (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). Phobias can interfere with the ability to work, socialize, and maintain a normal daily routine. They can cause such an overwhelming anxiety that people who have phobias may avoid any situation or object that is associated with the phobia. They may also isolate themselves from society (APA, 2010). Debilitating symptoms of phobias can include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, choking sensation, sweating, dizziness, nausea, and fear of dying (Smith, 2010).

      The development of phobias through classical conditioning takes place when one stimulus is paired with another that changes or obscures the original reflexive response to the original stimulus (Dingfelder, 2005). For example, in the model of arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, the person encounters a spider. Compare the spider to the bell in Pavlov's classical conditioning model with the dogs. The spider does not cause fear or anxiety in a person in the same way that bells do not cause dogs to salivate. However, if the spider is paired with an irrational or fearful thought that the spider may bite and kill the person, subsequently the person will learn to fear the spider because of the irrational or fearful thought automatically associated with the sight or even thought of spiders. It is pairing the spider with the thought that causes anxiety and fear. Just as pairing the bell with the food taught the dogs to salivate when they heard the bell. The sight of the spider will continue to cause anxiety until the person can disassociate the fearful irrational thought with the sight or thought of the spider (Dingfelder, 2005).

Operant conditioning and addiction

      Equally problematic and devastating are addictions that can cause life threatening disease, criminal behavior, mental illness, and suicide. Addiction is defined as a primary, chronic disease, characterized by an inability to control the use of a psychoactive substance (Sanchez, 2002). The term addiction is also applied to compulsions not substance related, such as gambling and computer addiction and describes a recurring compulsion to engage in a specific activity, despite harmful consequences to physical and mental health, and socialization. The American Psychiatric Association (2010) has recently included "behavioral addictions" (including Internet addiction) as a new class in the DSM-5.

      To explain addiction through the paradigm of operant conditioning, the model of video game addiction is used. The person is stimulated by playing video games (the behavior), and responds to playing the games by experiencing an altered "high" sensation (reinforcement), and subsequently wants more of what provides the "high" (Sanchez, 2002). That the person enjoys the altered state of feeling "high," causes the person to increase the frequency of doing what enables the altered state and becomes addicted to playing video games. The individual's behavior is positively reinforced according to the operant conditioning paradigm, which states that behavior followed by a stimulus that is pleasant, increases the frequency of that behavior (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). In operant conditioning, an important part of the learning process is the schedule of reinforcement prompted by the behavior, and this schedule or timing has a dramatic impact on the strength of the response. In the example of addiction to playing video games, the positive reinforcement is continuous, thereby creating a strong association between the behavior and the response.

Distinguishing Between Operant and Classical Conditioning

      Associative learning is the most basic type of knowledge acquisition and consists of making new associations between events in the environment. Classical and operant conditioning are two types of associative learning developed out of the behaviorist perspective. Although they share "common features such as extinction, prepared learning, discrimination, generalization, and the possibility of maladaptive associations" (Kowalski & Westen, 2009, p. 185), both involve learning associations, and neither will last if not reinforced. Each is characterized by distinctive variations in their pathway to learning.

      Whereas in classical conditioning, the stimulus that produces a reflexive response is replaced by a different stimulus, in operant conditioning the behavior is chosen according to consequences of the behavior and is positively or negatively reinforced to make the behavior more or less frequently chosen (Kowalski & Weston, 2009). In the classical conditioning example of arachnophobia, the spider was modified or replaced by the fearful and irrational thought which created the phobia of spiders. In the operant conditioning example of video game addiction, the addictive behavior was positively reinforced by the pleasant altered state which caused a higher frequency of the behavior.

      Based on previously learned material, operant conditioning depends on the active choice of the learner although classical conditioning involves involuntary reflexive behavior, which makes operant conditioning a more active learning experience and classical conditioning more passive, at least in regards to conscious or semi-conscious thought processes.

Extinction in classical conditioning

      Extinction in classical conditioning is the process by which the conditioned response is weakened when the conditioned stimulus is presented without the unconditioned stimulus. In the arachnophobia model, the spider is removed or disassociated with the fearful and irrational thoughts and eventually the phobia should be weakened until there is no longer any association. Further represented by the example of Pavlov's dogs, extinction occurred when Pavlov rang the bell without the presentation of food and the association between the bell and the food was weakened. Note, however, after extinction, there may be a spontaneous recovery where an association is revived usually for a short time, by a remaining weak association. If the dog hears the bell, it may salivate again, although the spontaneous recovery will cease rapidly without re-establishing the association between the food and the bell (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

Extinction in operant conditioning

      Extinction can occur in operant conditioning similar to the process in classical conditioning, but in operant conditioning, extinction occurs when there is a lack of the associated consequence following behavior. If the behavior does not produce either a favorable or an unfavorable consequence, then the behavior will eventually cease to be performed (Kowalski & Weston, 2009). Simply stated, in the case of the video game addict, if the addict no longer experiences an altered "high" state from playing the game, then the addict's behavior is not reinforced, and should eventually cease. It is of interest to note, however, that just as in classical conditioning, spontaneous recovery can occur in operant conditioning when the previously learned behavior returns without the associated reinforcement (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).


      Associative learning encompasses two separate and distinct pathways to learning, and each is effective in different environments. In order to maintain the learning, associations must be sustained and reinforced by continuing similar stimulation or extinction will eventually result. People have a natural tendency to learn from experience, and the associations made and the behavior chosen have a powerful impact on the brain. Some associations are the source of emotional difficulties such as phobias and addictions and while extinction can be actualized, the process of disassociating can be arduous. In the cases of both addiction and phobias, replacing maladaptive associations can be an extensive and lengthy process.

      Every day, people learn by association, and most learned behavior involves both types of conditioning. As both types are intertwined in a continuous learning experience, most people find it difficult to separately identify the individual conditioning types by which they are learning and most learning takes place as an indistinguishable event (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). Nevertheless, learning by association allows human beings to survive, adapt to, and navigate a constantly changing environment.


American Psychiatric Association. (2010, February 10). DSM-5 proposed revisions include new category of addiction and related disorders [Press release]. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from

Dingfelder, S. (2005, July). Distinguishing between phobias. Monitor on Psychology, 36(7), 98.

Ferster, C. B. (2002). Schedules of reinforcement with Skinner. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 77(3), 303-311.

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

Smith, M. (2010). Phobias and Fears Symptoms, Treatment, and Self-help.
Retrieved from

Sanchez, L. M. (2002, September 5). Violent Video Games and Operant Conditioning:
Physical and Psychological Effects [Scholarly project]. In Online gaming anonymous.
Retrieved July 14, 2010, from


  1. good paper. im writing the same one this week. univ of phoenix right?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I just found your blog too, also while searching for references while writing this same paper :-)

    I must say I love this class!! I really enjoyed your paper too. What was the word limit? It looks longer than what we have to write within, was yours a max of 1050 words? just wondering.....

    1. Hi,
      I don't recall the word count since this was written four or so years ago. 1050 is a pretty low word count, but I remember having to keep within the count, otherwise the deductions were substantial for grading.