The Behavioural approach to explaining and treating phobias: the two-process model including classical and operant conditioning.

AO1, Description:

The Behavioural Approach to Explaining Phobias

The Two-Process Model

As part of the two-process model, Classical Conditioning is used to explain the acquisition (beginning) of the phobia, whereas Operant Conditioning is used to explaining how the phobic behaviour is maintained.

Classical Conditioning (Initiation/Acquisition of the Phobia):

A phobia is acquired through association between a neutral stimulus (e.g. a white rat) and an unconditioned stimulus (e.g. a loud noise) which results in a new stimulus response being learned. See the example of Little Albert below who (through the work of Watson and Rayner, 1920) developed a phobia of white fluffy animals.

Operant Conditioning (Maintenance of the Phobia):

Operant conditioning involves learning through the consequences (outcomes of behaviour). A behaviour that is rewarding reinforces the chances of that behaviour being repeated in future situations. An outcome of a behaviour that is pleasant is known as positive reinforcement, while the outcome of a behaviour that results in escaping something unpleasant is known as negative reinforcement. Operant conditioning explains how phobias are maintained as, once the phobia has been acquired (through classical conditioning) individuals then exhibited avoidance responses (behaviours that lessen the chances of contact with the feared object/situation) which reduce the fear response, reinforcing the avoidance responses, making them more likely to occur again in the future. For example, if a person has a phobia of the dark due to the fact that they were mugged at night time, this individual might chose to sleep with the lights on (negative reinforcement) because it reduces the fear response associated with being in the dark.

The Little Albert case study can be seen as an example of how a phobia can develop as a result of Classical Conditioning:

Little Albert

Evaluation, AO3 of the Behavioural Approach (Two-Process Model) as an Explanation of Phobias


(1) POINT: The behavioural approach to psychopathology is scientific and its key principals can be measured in an objective way. EVIDENCE: For example, the phobia developed by Little Albert was clear for all to see and measure, variables could be manipulated and controlled to ensure that Little Albert’s phobia development was as a result of a neutral stimulus being associated with an unconditioned response. EVALUATION: This is positive because it allows concepts such as classical conditioning to be demonstrated scientifically and has resulted in a large amount of empirical support for behavioural therapies.


(1) POINT: The behavioural approach/two-process model of phobias can be criticised for being deterministic. EVIDENCE: For example, the Two-Process model suggests that when an individual experiences a traumatic event and uses this event to draw an association between a neutral stimulus and an unconditioned response they will go on and develop a phobia. EVALUATION: This is a weakness because this theory of phobias suggests that we are programmed by our environmental experiences and ignores individual free will (for example, if a person is bitten by a dog this negative experience may not cause them to develop a phobia of dogs.

(2) POINT: The behavioural approach/two-process model of phobias can be criticised for being reductionist. EVIDENCE: For example, the two-process model suggests that complex mental disorders such as phobias are caused solely by our experience of association, rewards and punishment (we learn all abnormalities including phobias). EVALUATION: This is a problem because the behavioural approach to explaining phobias can be seen to be too simplistic as it ignores the role of other factors such as our childhood experiences, everyday stressors and the role of biology (e.g. genes, neurotransmitters) in the development of abnormality.