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Phobia and Fear-Conditioning

Herman Ong

Upper Iowa University


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Abstract To many people, phobia is simply attributed to a personality or psychological problem of individuals. However, most behavioral psychologists believed that phobia as well as fear is caused by learning. In early twenty century, J.B. Watson and R. Rayner conducted a famous experiment “Little Albert� in which an infant who was successful conditioned to fear a white rat. This experiment told us fear-conditioning may play a critical role in determining phobia and implicated that the phobia can also be re-conditioned through behavioral therapy. A joker-phobia case was examined and discussed at this study in the framework of fear-conditioning and its moderators, such as ITI, context, schedule of stimulus as well as stimulus-generalization. And behavioral therapies were also suggested in the study. Result of the case study showed that all the above factors are moderating the effectiveness of fear-conditioning. However, in order to explain the whole picture of phobia, genetic preparedness and biological fear modules must be taken into account.


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Phobia and fear-conditioning For many years, phobia has confused with fear across the different nations and cultures. People always termed the phobia as the synonyms as the fear. However, by the prevalence of mental disorder in developed countries (NIMI, 2010), scholars and researchers shed the light on phobia and distinguished the phobia from fear unambiguously. In fact, fear is a natural response which emerged in every animal, including Homo sapiens – Human. It is an indispensable defensive mechanism that helps us to avoid threats and dangers through “flight-or-fight” response, such as freezing as motionless to hide from the predators (Domjan, 2010), or running away to avoid the risk. Therefore, fear is unnecessary to be negatively labeled as bad trait. Rather than that, it fabulously contributes to the survival as well as evolution, the dog evolved from wolf due to its fear reduction to human (Dawkins, 2010). However, this is precisely the difference between fear and phobia. Phobia has no point to be viewed as positive as fear. According to the DSM-IV, most updated in 2010, phobia is a kind of anxiety disorder which provokes the unrealistic, unreasonable, unnecessary and excessive fear and anxiety to specific stimulus. Although there have more than hundreds phobias, 3 common categories of phobia are well-acknowledged (2010), the first one is “specific phobia”, it is an unrealistic fear to specific objects or phenomenon, such as flying phobia, snake phobia etc. Another one is “social-phobia” which is fear of others in society;


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people with social-phobia usually feel the extreme pressure from other people. Last one is “Agoraphobia”, it is a fear to strange area. People with “Agoraphobia” are fear to leave from their home as safe house; they perceived the area out of their home is unsafe, filled with germs and disasters. Height, snake or germs, those may threaten our life are reasonable to be fear. But prolonged and excessive fear and anxiety provoked by them even in the absence of unconditional stimulus, it is phobia. Thus, as we mentioned, fear can help one’s living while phobia is unnecessary in which hinder the adaptability of human. Surprisingly, even though phobia can impact human a lot on psychological or social aspects, people have under-estimated the severity of phobia. However, according to one research published by Hong Kong Chinese University (2007), there have 4.4 percent people in Hong Kong suffered phobia. On the other hand, some statistic in United States also reported that there has almost 10 percent people suffering one of the three common phobias we mentioned above (Phobia-help.com, 2010). These are the red-light to alert us the consequence of ignoring the growing of phobia. Fortunately, some scholars and researchers found the importance and value of examining phobia and fear in 60s. In general, the classical view of fear and phobia were attributed to individual difference, such as personality or trait theory. People who were easily being sensitized or threatened by something or someone are likely to be classified as neuroticism or timid etc. But this plausible assertion was soon to be refuted by scholars of behaviorism. They argued that the personality trait theory to fear or


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phobia were “fundamental attribution error” in which they were over-estimate the individual factor but under-estimated the situational force. The situational force behaviorism proposed was “learning in context”. Accordingly, learning is well-accepted as to determine and explain the fear and phobia. At this paper, we will study the mechanism of fear conditioning to explain the causation of phobia with the practical example. In additions, the moderating factors affecting the fear conditioning will also be discussed. Finally, we will propose several processes and treatments in terms of behavioral perspective on curing the phobia, and its criticisms will also be reviewed. Fear Conditioning In order to explain the reason of people having fears and phobias, fear conditioning is an inevitable topic to be examined. Fear conditioning is a type of Pavolvian conditioning which proposed by Watson and Rayner (1920). The famous experiment (despites unethical) they conducted in 1920 called “Little Albert experiment”. During the experiment, an infant named Albert was successfully conditioned the fear to white rate and others while he was never afraid of those before the experiment. On hand this experiment proved that human had less fear in infancy. On the other hand, fear can also be conditioned through the learning process, this learning process are called “fear conditioning”. To condition the fear, there have some prerequisites we have to follow. First of all, fear conditioning is an excitatory


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conditioning in which it excites and encourages the conditional fear through the association of conditional stimulus (CS) and unconditional stimulus (US). Conditional stimulus (CS) are neutral in nature while unconditional stimulus (US) is something naturally provoke the unconditional fear (UR) to people, such as electrical shock serves as unconditional stimulus (US) to provoke the unconditional avoidance and fear (UR). Therefore, when present one unconditional aversive stimulus just after the neutral stimulus. After several trials, the subject would pair-up two stimuli and that neutral stimulus would become conditional stimulus associated with aversive stimulus. Later, if we remove the unconditional aversive stimulus and present the conditional stimulus only, subject would still have the fear response; this response is called conditional response (CR). Through this fear conditioning, behaviorism claimed that most fear exists in the human are learned through conditioning rather than inheritance. In fact, this finding is matched to our practical experience. One Chinese girl, named G, aged 27, is suffered from the Joker phobia. Everytime when she saw someone costumed as Joker in the mall, she started sweating and holding very tight to her relative. Many times her friend tried to pull her closer to that Joker, she exaggerated the fear and start screaming and crying. But she was calm down when walked away from the Joker. According to the above studies, Joker should not an unconditional aversive stimulus to trigger fear or phobia. Instead, it is a conditional stimulus which should be conditioned by another unconditional aversive stimulus in the history of G. The unconditional aversive stimulus


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paired up with the Joker could be anything, such as spider, abused by parent or loud noise which we don’t know; some researchers may use the psychoanalytical therapy to examine the origin of fear and increase the self-awareness to the causation of phobia. However, it is not effective and unnecessary to behaviorism in which we only need to use the conditioning processes for curing G, such as inhibition (Rauhut, Thomas & Ayres, 2001), behavior modification (Brown & And, 1974) and explicitly unpairing of unconditional stimulus (US) and conditional stimulus (CS) (ibid.). Nevertheless, prior to the treatment, it is more important to examine the reason why some people are easier to condition with specific stimulus while some people don’t. Hereinafter, we will study the moderating effect in the fear conditioning. Moderating factors of fear conditioning Moderator 1: delayed and trace conditioning. Trace and delayed conditioning represents the different schedules of conditioning. Since Pavolvian conditioning is a stimulus-dependent learning in which the effectiveness of conditioning is depended on the organization of stimulus. Therefore, different schedule of presenting stimulus will affect the effectiveness and explain the individual difference in fear conditioning. Delayed conditioning in which the unconditional stimulus is presented overlapped with conditional stimulus while trace conditioning presents the unconditional stimulus just after the conditional stimulus without overlap. Some studies found that either long or short-delay conditioning is more


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readily to condition the fear than in trace conditioning. This is because the trace interval, the time gap without stimulus between CS and US, reduces the effectiveness of association between CS and US (Moyer & Brown, 2006). This may lead to the “unpaired effect” to both CS and US. For example, the Joker phobia of G might be conditioned in the way of both delayed- and trace-fear conditioning respectively. In delayed fear conditioning, she might see the joker (CS) while she was shocked by any loud noise (US), such as the fireworks or screaming, then she felt fear to the loud noise (UR) even in the absence of loud noise afterwards (CR). On the other hand, in trace fear conditioning, everytime she went to the mall and see the Joker playing (CS). She was seriously punished (US) by parent afterwards. Gradually, she may anticipate the punishment after the presentation of Joker and become Joker phobia. Moderator 2: Trial-spacing (Inter-trial intervals ITI). Inter-trial interval is the time from the end of one conditioning to another one. Interestingly, researchers found that longer ITIs resulted in enhanced trace fear conditioning (Detert, Kampa & Moyer, 2008) as well as delayed fear conditioning (Barela, 1999). Most scholars believed that this may relate to the matter of memory system (Bellebaum & Daum, 2004). And this finding indicates that the phobia acquisition may not a “frequent-intensive-conditioning”, rather than that, it may be a “prolonged-consistent-conditioning” with longer ITIs involved. For example, G might be


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exposed in that particular setting of fear conditioning for a chronic period, such as a childhood or a year in order to conditioned effectively to fear the Joker. Moderator 3: Stimulus-generalization. Generally, fear-conditioning is defined as the cue-conditioning in which subject responds to the cue of conditional stimulus. However, some studies found that states and context would also be conditioned during the fear conditioning, such as internal states of subject or environmental context (Mystkowski et al., 2003). For example, the rat conditioned with the fear to sound by unconditional electrical shock in a maze also showed the conditional fear responses when we put it into the same maze alone. However, this cue-generalization works best in the trace fear conditioning than in delay fear conditioning (Detert, Kampa & Moyer, 2008). In fact, this finding is consistent with the case of G. Despite the intensive fear to Joker, she felt anxiety to the mall she experienced and even to the painting-face. This showed the stimulus-generalization of fear conditioning from CS1 (Joker) to other CSs (experienced mall and painting-face). Interestingly, although G had experienced another Joker in another mall with loud noise also, she didn’t show conditional fear to the new mall. This also implicated the “Blocking effect” in which the first fear conditioning of Joker in first mall blocked the effectiveness of fear conditioning to new mall and subsequent compound stimulus (Kamin, 1968; Bradfield & McNally, 2008).


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Behavioral therapies to phobia As mentioned above, the cause of phobia as well as the fear conditioning is mainly depended on the association of two stimuli. Time, frequency, stimulus schedule and context serve as variable to strengthen or weaken this association. Therefore, in order to eliminate the fear conditioning, we can weaken the association between the conditional aversive stimulus and unconditional aversive stimulus. Traditionally, behavioral therapist would use the inhibitory conditioning to pair up extra one neutral stimulus with conditional aversive stimulus in the absence of unconditional aversive stimulus. Due to the absence of unconditional stimulus, no aversive or unpleasant unconditional responses will be happened on the subject, and then it implicates the extinction of fear response. This extinction of fear response strengthens the association between the conditional aversive stimulus and neutral stimulus. After several times, the neutral stimulus will become another conditional stimulus and leads subject anticipates the absence of unpleasant outcome as well as unconditional stimulus. This extra conditional stimulus is called “inhibitory conditional stimulus” (Domjan, 2010). By the same token, we can apply this inhibitory CS (CS-) in our patient G. For instance, I used a MP3 player to serve as the inhibitory CS to G and said, “Joker scares you because of his voice, once you wear the MP3, you won’t fear of him anymore”. For sure she didn’t believe it, but she still tried. Then I brought her to a mall where having a joker at show. I put the MP3 on her ear and played the soft music. The soft music blocked background loud


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noise at mall which may sensitize her anxiety, but the most important thing was I assume no unconditional aversive stimulus (abusive parent, loud noise nor shock) to G at there. Thus her conditional fear should be reduced by extinction and this peaceful context would pair up with the MP3 I provided to her. Next time, I told her to put on the MP3 if saw the joker again, I believe that after several times of trial in the absence of US, the MP3 will become CS- and inhibit her conditional fear to joker as well. However, extinction and inhibitory conditioning are not flawless. In fact, many researchers found that it is ineffective to eliminate the renewal of fear (Rauhut, Thomas & Ayres, 2001). This is because extinction also depends on the acquisition of association between pleasurable memory and context in the absence of unconditional stimulus (Urcelay & Miller, 2010). But in the real situation, there has no guarantee to constant the fear context is identical as the one we inhibit or extinct. A small difference in context may also trigger the renewal of fear to subject. For example, G may feel comfortable to see the joker at the mall I brought her while she may still feel fear to joker in another mall. On the other hand, one exceptional happening of accidental unconditional stimulus during the inhibitory conditioning again would ruin up the entire therapy. Alternatively, many behavioral therapists suggested explicitly unpair the unconditional stimulus and conditional stimulus which means we can present the CS and US in an intermingled but explicitly cut off its association and anticipation by inconsistent


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pattern or random presentation. This leads the subject find the noncontiguous relationship between US and CS. Although the result found that explicit unpair was effective to stop the renewal of fear on rats, however, this method may expose the subject in the US repeatedly and may not ethical to practice on human patient. In fact, the most common and effective method behavioral therapists using currently is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is a mixed therapy which involves operant conditioning and classical conditioning. Classical conditioning exactly is the extinction and inhibitory conditioning we mentioned above while they added the operant conditioning, behavior modification, to reinforce and promote the behavior which against the fear (Domjan, 2010). For instance, after the extinction and inhibitory conditioning to G, I encouraged her to make one step closer to the joker. Any one step she made, I highly appreciated and regarded her. This appreciation and encouragement plays as a critical positive reinforcement to G and excites her fighting behavior. Besides, we observed the joker played with other children, the happiness and peaceful of other children served as observational learning to G that promotes her confidence to walk closer to that joker. However, when she stopped, I kept silence and this was definitely a negative punishment that took away the appreciation and self-esteem I gave her before. After several weeks, although she might not dare to play with the joker, at least she felt less anxiety to him even sometimes she didn’t realize him when talking to me.


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Obviously, the sensitization and stress level to joker were already being reduced by those behavioral therapies. Criticism on behavioral approach to phobia Although contemporary therapists and scholars believed that most phobias are attributed to fear-conditioning as well as learning, they have failed to explain the selectivity of phobia and stimuli difference in effectiveness. Some stimuli are more readily to be learnt and associated with fear while some don’t, such as wide-open space, height and deadly predators (Ohman & Mineka, 2001). For example, most people learnt fear of snake more readily than other stimuli. If snake is solely one of the neutral stimuli to be conditioned, then how to explain its difference in which favoring the association easier than others? Evolutionary psychologist, Arne Ohman (2003) claimed that this may relate to our habitation at the age of dinosaur. In order to survive, our mammalian ancestor had to sensitize to those reptiles and dinosaurs which were the ancestor of snake. These specific sensitizing traits probably inherit to our generation and activate the fear modules in brain. Therefore, everytime when we received the image of snake or reptile, our aversive emotion mediated by the fear module will be triggered more readily and exaggerated than others for preparing to escape. Even the snake doesn’t hurt us, these aversive feelings act as unconditional responses and being anticipated after seeing snake or reptile. This “preparedness” of some specific


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stimuli may emphasis the role of genetic factor in later study of fear-conditioning and shed the light on examining the inheritance of learning. Conclusion Fear is the primary emotion that innately developed in childhood. It plays a crucial role to help us avoid the threats or dangers. However, excessive and unrealistic fear is unnecessary to keep us safe. Instead, it may harm and ruin up our social interaction as well as threatening our life through depression or anxiety. In order to eliminate the excessive fear as well as phobia, we have to understand the importance of conditioning in fear. Case study of G showed that fear can definitely be conditioned through aversive experience, and also can be re-conditioned through classical and operant conditioning too. However, fear-conditioning and phobia is a complicated issue in which it involved many moderators, such as ITI, context, schedule of stimulus, generalization as well as genetic fear-enabled stimulus. It is difficult to find a universal dose to cure all phobias. Nevertheless, by understanding more in behaviorism and genetic preparedness of fear, we believe that the causation and solution of phobia will soon be revealed.


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Reference Barela, P. B. (1999). Theoretical mechanisms underlying the trial-spacing effect in Pavlovian fear conditioning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 25, 177–193. Bellebaum, C., & Daum, I. (2004). Fear, Conditioning, and Aging: Theoretical Comment on LaBar et al. (2004). Behavioral Neuroscience, 118(5), 1137-1139. doi:10.1037/0735-7044.118.5.1137 Bradfield, L., & McNally, G. P. (2008). Unblocking in Pavlovian fear conditioning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 34(2), 256-265. doi:10.1037/0097-7403.34.2.256 Brown, R. E., & And, O. (1974). School Phobia: Effects of Behavior Modification Treatment Applied By An Elementary School Principal. Child Study Journal. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. Dawkins, R. (2010). The Greatest Show on Earth. London: Black Swan press. Detert, J. A., Kampa, N. D., & Moyer, J. r. (2008). Differential effects of training intertrial interval on acquisition of trace and long-delay fear conditioning in rats. Behavioral Neuroscience, 122(6), 1318-1327. doi:10.1037/a0013512 Domjan, M. (2010). The Principles of Learning and Behavior. Wadsworth. Canada.


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Fears, Foibles and Phobias. (2010). Electronic Ardell Wellness Report (E-AWR), (542), 3. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. Hong Kong Chinese University. (2007). Panic Disorder. Retrieved from www.hmdc.med.cuhk.edu.hk Kamin, L. J. (1968). “Attention-like” processes in classical conditioning. In M. R. Jones (Ed.), Miami symposium on the prediction of behavior: Aversive stimulation (pp. 9–33). Miami, FL: University of Miami Press. Moyer, J. r., & Brown, T. H. (2006). Impaired trace and contextual fear conditioning in aged rats. Behavioral Neuroscience, 120(3), 612-624. doi:10.1037/0735-7044.120.3.612 Mystkowski, J. L., Mineka, S., Vernon, L. L., & Zinbarg, R. E. (2003). Changes in caffeine states enhance return of fear in spider phobia. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71(2), 243-250. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.71.2.243 Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108(3), 483-522. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.108.3.483 Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2003). The malicious serpent: Snakes as a prototypical stimulus for an evolved module of fear. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(1), 5-9. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.01211 Phobias-help.com. (2010). Retrieved from www.phobias-help.com


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Phobia and Fear-conditioning