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Learning Theory and Phobias

From Behaviorism to Cognitive Theory

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Updated April 10, 2009

Learning theory is a broad term that includes multiple theories of behavior that are based on the learning process. Learning theory is rooted in the work of Ivan Pavlov, who was able to train dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell.

Behaviorism

Pavlov’s theory is known as classical conditioning. The dogs’ salivation was an automatic response to the presence of meat. By pairing the presentation of the meat with the ringing of a bell, Pavlov was able to condition the dogs to respond to a new stimulus (the bell). Eventually, the dogs salivated when they heard the bell, even when the meat was not present.

B.F. Skinner elaborated on Pavlov’s theory. His work introduced operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, behavior that is reinforced continues, while behavior that is punished or not reinforced is eventually stopped.

Both reinforcement and punishment can be either negative or positive, depending on whether a positive or negative reward is being given or taken away. Today, reinforcement is seen as more effective than punishment in changing behavior.

Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory focuses on an individual's thoughts as a crucial determinate of his or her emotions and behaviors. Our responses make sense within our own view of the world. Therefore, according to cognitive theory, it is important to change a person’s thoughts and beliefs in order to change his or her behaviors.

According to cognitive theory, irrational responses are the result of automatic thoughts and erroneous beliefs. Cognitive reframing is a technique that is used to help the client examine his or beliefs and develop healthier ways of viewing the situation. Techniques such as the STOP method are used to help the individual stop automatic thoughts and replace them with new thoughts.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory is a variation on cognitive theory that addresses the effects that others have on our behavior. According to the principles of social cognitive theory, we learn not only through our own experiences, but also by watching others. Whether or not we act on what we have learned depends on many factors, including how strongly we identify with the model, our perception of the consequences of the behavior, and our beliefs about our own ability to change old patterns.

Social cognitive theory may help to explain the origins of many phobias. It can also be used to help treat phobias. A common technique is for the therapist to model a new behavior before asking the individual to perform it.

Cognitive-Behaviorism

Cognitive-behaviorism is a blended theory that incorporates both cognitive theory and behaviorism. According to cognitive-behaviorism, our responses are based on a complex interaction between thoughts and behaviors.

Modern cognitive-behaviorism also incorporates elements of feeling-based learning theories, such as rational-emotive theory. According to these principles, we are complex human beings whose responses are based on ongoing interactions between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It is necessary to address all of these components in order to successfully change our reactions.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is currently the most popular method of therapy for treating phobias in the United States. This is a type of brief therapy in which successful results may sometimes be acheived in only a few sessions. This is important to many people whose health insurance plans may limit the number of visits they can make to a therapist per year.

Source:

Dombeck PhD, Mark. “Learning Theory.” Mental Help Net: Psychotherapy. April 4, 2006. March 14, 2008. http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=9285

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