Every person is inevitably afraid of something, like a fear of speaking in public or a dread of losing a loved one. Regardless of the phobia, however, people acquire their concerns in similar ways. Psychologists attempt to explain how a particular thing can become terrific to a person through multiple theories. Some can be described by pure biological instinct, some – though the social pressure and influence. However, analyzing one specific fear via multiple perspectives can uncover an unexpected insight into both the frameworks and the experience itself. In this paper, I will attempt to examine my fear of heights, or acrophobia, through the lens of three theories: operant and classical conditioning, as well as cognitive-social learning.
Classical Conditioning: Background and Analysis
Firstly, the learning experience can be analyzed from the perspective of classical conditioning. As a theory firstly explored by Pavlov, it connected the previously neutral stimulus that provoked no response to a certain reaction (Domjan, 2018). The Little Albert experiment showed that the framework is applicable to human phobias. The rat played a role of neutral stimulus (NS), the loud noise was the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) that led to the unconditioned response (UCR) of crying and worry (Domjan, 2018). When the UCR was paired with the NS, the child learned to be afraid of the rat. Thus, when seeing a mouse, which is a conditioned stimulus, the infant would be scared, which is a learned behavior, or a conditioned response.
When I was a child, my family used to go for walks to the park. At the time, I was curious to examine what was beneath the observation deck; however, my parents realized that a small child wandering the cliff of such great height is dangerous. Therefore, every time I approached the edge of the platform, my mom would shout at me and ask to step back. Although she was doing it for my safety, through repetitive actions, I started to associate approaching the high platform with a loud noise of my parent shouting, which frightened me. In this specific instance, the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) was loud shouting, while the unconditioned response (UCR) to it was the anxiety from my side. My mother undertook a classical conditioning procedure with the introduction of the neutral stimulus of height and associating it with a fearful response to shouting. Thus, as a result of the process, approaching high platforms became the conditioned stimulus, while fear acted as the conditioned response.
Operant Conditioning: Background and Analysis
The second framework for the analysis of my phobia of heights is operant conditioning. Commonly associated with a psychologist Skinner, it states that the behavior can be learned by positive and negative reinforcements, as well as punishment (Domjan, 2018). In the original experiment by Skinner, he constructed a device called “The Skinner Box,” where a rat had to figure out that pulling a lever leads to providing him with food. In this simplified test, the positive reinforcer was the food, while the learned behavior was pulling the lever.
Similar to the original experiment, I was conditioned to be petrified of heights by avoidance. The behavior that occurred was me approaching the potentially dangerous place, my mother’s anger and loud screaming served as a consequence, while the negative reinforcement or punishment was the fear that the loudness provoked in me. As a result of this process, I gained acrophobia and adopted the coping mechanism of avoidance. For instance, every time we had to climb a tall ladder during PE lessons, I would ask my teacher to skip the task since I was afraid. An understanding teacher supported me and allowed me to miss the exercise, resulting in reinforcing the phobia and behavior of avoidance.
Cognitive-Social Learning: Background and Analysis
Lastly, one of the least popular, yet still viable theories to explain how phobias are created is the cognitive-social theory. Initially proposed by Bandura, it had some resemblance with those of Skinner, since both psychologists shared the behaviorists’ views (Nabi & Prestin, 2017). However, unlike Skinner, Bandura emphasized the external rather than the internal aspect of learning. For instance, he claimed that for an individual response and behavior, like fear, to form, the person does not necessarily have to experience the conditioning personally (Nabi & Prestin, 2017). Instead, a person can observe others’ experience conditioning and apply that knowledge to himself.
I can see how this theory relates to my example. In addition to being operantly conditioned by punishment and classically conditioned by my mother’s shouting, from early childhood, I also observed my parent being afraid of heights. Her aggressive reaction served as an indicator of her own phobia. Additionally, I repetitively observed how she avoided looking down and approaching the observation deck too close to the cliff. I spotted and remembered how terrified and scared she was when we reached the highest point of the platform. Afterward, she repeatedly expressed her fear; perhaps, through cognitive-social theory, I acquired the same phobia as my mother through directly witnessing it.
In conclusion, any experience and behavior can be viewed through the perspectives of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and cognitive-social learning. Although all three are similar in their results and goals, they differ in their mechanisms and focus. For instance, while classical conditioning associates the involuntary response with a stimulus, the operant conditioning concentrates on voluntary actions. Social learning, in its turn, shifts the responsibility of learning behavior from internal to external experience.
- Domjan, M. (2018). The essentials of conditioning and learning. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Nabi, R. L., & Prestin, A. (2017). Social learning theory and social cognitive theory. The International Encyclopedia of Media Effects, 1-13. doi:10.1002/9781118783764.wbieme0073