The psychology of fear is something many are interested in. Rather than focussing on our behaviour itself, it looks at the motives and emotions that inform our behaviour. It is fascinating that some people have such strong emotional reactions to stimuli and often these stimuli can in fact harm us in no way. Psychologists have long been interested in the differences in phobias between individuals and their causation and are just recently beginning to have progress in the treatment of these problems.
It was John Watson, a well-known behaviourist, who first showed a method for explaining phobias. He was in fact, with the help of Rosalie Rayner, even able to create a phobia in a 9 month old child, ‘Albert’. He showed that if you were to continually expose a person to a feared stimulus at the same time as another stimulus which had no effect, the neutral stimulus would soon also cause a fearful reaction. This means that a phobia of the second object has been created. This process is now known as classical conditioning, and is one of the fundamental principles of the behaviourist approach to psychology.
Some theorists believe that there are other ways in which phobias can be caused, for example that people have a predisposition to get phobias of certain things from our evolution. Spiders and snakes are particularly common fears and this may be because our ancestors had to avoid these things to survive. Because only those who were cautious of these things were able to survive and breed, all people now have within their genes a predisposition to fear these things. Also, some believe that phobias can be learnt through an observation and imitation process using social learning theory. This means that we are more likely to have the same phobias that our parents have, since we will learn how to react to objects from how we see them reacting.
There are several methods used today to treat phobias, with varying results. One method that has been used in the past is ‘flooding’. This involves exposing a patient to large amounts of the feared stimulus all at once, and in an environment whereby they cannot escape. For example trapping someone scared of spiders in a locked room with hundreds of them. Although the patient will initially be very scared, eventually they will have to calm down since it is impossible to stay stressed for a long period of time. When this happens, they will come to realise that their fear is unfounded and will not be as scared of it in the future. Unfortunately this method is not always successful and has the large ethical issue that it causes a great deal of distress to the patients involved.
A second technique used is systematic desensitisation. This involves creating a list of ordeals from highly phobic to only slightly worrying. For example for a snake phobia. The lowest ordeal on the list might be just seeing a picture of a snake, and the highest might be actually holding one, with many other possibilities in between. The participants are taught relaxation techniques involving deep breathing. They then move up the list of ordeals and at each stage use the relaxation techniques to calm themselves before they continue. They then associate the relaxation with the stimulus instead of the fear that they had originally. While this technique takes much longer, it has had fairly reliable success and is considerably more ethical.
The study of phobias is still controversial with theorists constantly debating over their differing views, but it clearly has much relevance to the real world, and the potential to really help the lives of many victims of the disorder. Hopefully the future will bring more reliable techniques for their treatment, but more than anything we need to work on persuading people to seek help for the problem, as many are scared about having to face up to their fears in the treatment room.