Oxford’s dictionary defines a phobia as “an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something” and whilst the term is thrown around rather casually nowadays, a phobia is actually a very serious medical condition that causes a plethora of unpleasant symptoms, such as nausea, accelerated heart rate, and shortness of breath.
The most common phobia in the world is arachnophobia: the fear of spiders. It’s thought that in Western societies as many as 55% of females experience this phobia, along with 18% of males, but what is the actual cause of arachnophobia? And phobias in general? Psychologists have a few theories.
The first of these is classical conditioning. Ask any psychology student about classical conditioning and they’ll likely launch into a lengthy tirade about “Pavlov’s Dogs” and the unethical nightmare that is the Little Albert Experiment. For us it’s Psych 101 but for those of you who have never heard of the term, you’ve likely used classical conditioning in day to day life without even realising.
Classical conditioning is the process in which we learn to make associations between two different stimuli that are repeatedly paired. An example of this, that you may be familiar with, is when you train a dog to sit. The first stimulus is the command of “sit” and the second is the actual action of sitting, and both of these combined with a yummy treat mean that you can condition your dog to sit on command.
This process was first proved by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in 1902. His experiment “Pavlov’s Dogs” still holds up one hundred years later and inspired later experiments such as the Little Albert Experiment, which investigated the role of classical conditioning in phobias.
In the Little Albert Experiment, Watson and Rayner looked to see if they could actually give someone a phobia through the process of classical conditioning. And they decided to do this on a baby. I already it said it was highly unethical.
They tested the baby (Little Albert) around a variety of animals, including a white rat, to see if he was afraid of any of them. Albert seemed quite content around all of the animals, and showed absolutely no fear. Now this all seems very nice, just a day out at what might as well have been a petting zoo.
Then Watson has to go and ruin it all by damaging the kid for life. In order to make Little Albert form a phobia to white rats, every time he was presented with one Watson would strike a metal bar, and the resulting loud noise would scare Little Albert and make him cry. This was repeated until just seeing a white rat caused Albert to burst into tears, and thus he was successfully classically conditioned and mentally scarred for all eternity. As well as the ethical issues with this experiment, Watson and Rayner relied on their own subjective interpretations of Little Albert’s reactions, instead of an objective measure.
Yet, despite these problems, classical conditioning still acts as a viable theory for the cause of phobias and is still used today in order to reverse phobias in therapy, despite the Watson and Rayner experiment taking place in 1920.
The second theory of how phobias are developed is the evolutionary theory. Classical conditioning does not explain how we often fear things we have never physically encountered, whereas the evolutionary theory does. This theory states that we inherit our phobias from our ancestors, who developed them in order to survive. Many studies, such as the Visual Cliff experiment, support this theory as well.
So what actually causes phobias? Evolution or classical conditioning? Or perhaps a combination of both?