Phobias and Addictions Theories


Classical conditioning is a theory that was developed by Ivan Pavlov, which proved that behavior in people and animals can be directed using an external stimulus. He did this by placing a signal before a natural reflex, so that the subject associated the signal with the stimulus, and acquired conditioned response (Lavond and Steinmetz, 2003). The Operant conditioning theory was developed by B.F. Skinner, which proved that behavior in people is acquired and maintained through Reinforcements. Positive reinforcement encourages the behavior, and negative reinforcement discourages the behavior (Coon and Mitterer, 2008). These two behavior theories can be used to describe the development of phobias and addiction in people, and to help Psychologists measure the behavior of patients to understand their condition better.

Development of Phobias through Classical Conditioning

A phobia is defined as an intense fear of something, either, an object or a situation. Classical conditioning can develop phobias when a subject associates with a situation or a thing that invokes distress and fear. This causes the subject to be distressed every time he faces the situation or the object. It is referred to as a conditioned response. Ivan Pavlov proved it through animals, but Watson and Rayner went further to prove that it was also possible in humans. They accomplished this by performing the Little Albert experiment (Watson and Rayner, 1920), whereby different objects were introduced to the child (objects that the child liked). Later, they introduced the same objects, but they were accompanied by a hammer strike. Eventually, the child began to get distressed every time he saw the objects that had previously been accompanied by a hammer strike, even after the hammer had been stopped. Then, they moved Little Albert to a different room, and the objects were reintroduced. He still displayed distress every time he saw the objects, even though the environment was different.

This experiment proved that fear can be developed through Classical conditioning. For example, a child who loses his/her parents in a car crash develops a fear of travelling in cars. The conditioned response is fear of cars, which develops because of the traumatizing event of losing his/her parents in a car crash. This phobia can go on even if the child does not experience another car accident. It becomes a reflex response every time the child is travelling in a car, and it continues even as the child grows and develops. Therefore, this phobia of travelling in cars can be attributed to Classical conditioning.

Development of Addiction through Operant Conditioning

Addiction is the abuse of a substance in order to change one’s moods. It can also be abuse of an action or a practice, such as physical exercise. The object of addiction can vary in different people, but the similar result is instant gratification. For example, a person will be addicted to alcohol because of the relief one feels when drunk, and the brief period of freedom from one’s worrisome thoughts. The core of Operant conditioning is Reinforcement, and in Addiction, the instant gratification is positive reinforcement that encourages the action. Every time an alcoholic indulges in alcohol, he/she feels instant pleasure because of drinking the alcohol. Therefore, an alcoholic associates alcohol with good emotions, which makes him/ her continue the Addiction. Skinner’s experiment with rats in a box proved this theory. The rats were put in a box, and a lever was placed such that every time the rats hit the lever, food dropped. This reward (food), made the rats repeat the action of hitting the lever repeatedly (Coon and Mitterer, 2008). The same applies to a person addicted to something. Because of the pleasure that follows his practicing the addiction, he repeatedly indulges to receive similar reward. The addiction continues as long as the person continues to gain positive reinforcement. However, when the reinforcement diminishes, such as less pleasure or lack of pleasure from the indulgence, the person seeks more reward by indulging more, or changing the drug/ action to receive similar pleasure. This behavior fosters addiction, and consequently leads to a person increasing the amount of drug in question in order to achieve similar emotion.

Difference between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Although both Classical and Operant conditioning are theories about external influences and a person’s behavior, the main difference is that Classical conditioning focuses on involuntary behavior, while Operant conditioning focuses on voluntary behavior. In Classical conditioning, the relationship studied is between a stimulus and a natural response, but in Operant conditioning, the relationship studied is between an action and its subsequent result. There is a principle of positive or negative consequence of the action in Operant conditioning, but in Classical conditioning the subject’s action has no such consequence. The subject is passive, and only reacts to the stimulus. In Operant conditioning however, the subject is active and the actions have consequence.


Extinction refers to the diminishing and eventual cessation of a response. In Classical conditioning, the response diminishes when the stimulus is removed for some time. This shows partial extinction. However, when the stimulus is reintroduced, the response is recovered. Therefore, in Classical conditioning, separation from the stimulus brings about cessation of a response, referred to as extinction. Pavlov’s experiment showed that extinction does not return a subject to the unconditioned state. A spontaneous recovery of the response can occur when the stimulus is reintroduced after a period of separation (Lavond and Steinmetz, 2003). Spontaneous recovery explains why phobias can last a lifetime. The phobias diminish after long periods of separation from the stimulus, but return when a subject faces the stimulus again.

In Operant conditioning, extinction occurs when the positive reinforcement diminishes or is no longer there. For example, a person addicted to alcohol will begin to face the addiction when they stop deriving pleasure from drinking. Extinction in Operant conditioning can also be achieved through negative reinforcement or punishment (Coon and Mitterer, 2008). In the case of the alcoholic, being fired from a job because of the addiction would be a form of punishment that can lead to extinction of the behavior.


In conclusion, Classical conditioning and Operant conditioning are theories that refer to behavior in people and animals, and lay emphasis on measurable behavior rather than emotion. These two theories are therefore important in Psychology for understanding phobias and addictions, and their treatment. Providing a way to measure the behavior of subjects allows a Psychologist to study a subject’s behavior more accurately, and not rely solely on a person’s expression of the situation during assessment. Psychologists in turn, use these theories to identify and diagnose problems that may be afflicting their patient. Consequently, they come up with an accurate diagnosis that they can recommend for accurate treatment of undesired behavior or nurture desired ones.


Coon, D. & Mitterer, O.J. (2008). Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behaviour. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.

Lavond, G.D & Steinmetz, E.J. (2003). Handbook of Classical Conditioning. Norwell, Massachusetts, USA : Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Watson, J. B. & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1, pp. 1–14.

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PsychologyWriting. "Phobias and Addictions Theories." September 22, 2023.