October 22, 2007

The principles of avoidance learning shed some light on why phobias are so resistant to extinction. Suppose you have a phobia of elevators. Chances are, you acquired your phobia through classical conditioning. At some point in your past, elevators became paired with a frightening event. Now whenever you need to use an elevator, you experience conditioned fear. If your phobia is severe, you probably take the stairs instead. Taking the stairs is an avoidance response that should lead to consistent negative reinforcement by relieving your conditioned fear. Thus, it’s hard to get rid of phobias for two reasons. First, responses that allow you to avoid a phobic stimulus ear negative reinforcement each time they are made — so the avoidance behavior is strengthened and continued. Second, these avoidance responses prevent any opportunity to extinguish the phobic conditioned response because you’re never exposed to the conditioned stimulus (In this case, riding in an elevator).

– From Psychology: Variations and Themes by Weiten

This is why I love psychology. It takes something that I intuit and puts it into such better words.

Pseudoscience? Perhaps. But a useful one!

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