How Learning Theory Can Be Used in Overcoming, Cynophobia, a Fear of Dogs

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Hakim has come to a therapist in order to help overcoming his Cynophobia, a fear of dogs. Explain and critically evaluate how learning theory can be used to explain Hakim's phobia and also, potentially, to treat it.

This essay will explain and critically evaluate how, Cynophobia, a fear of dogs can be overcome. The two main points that will be looked at is learning theory in an effort to try and explain how this phobia has developed in Hakim and possible ways of treating it.

Classical conditioning as defined by Comer,(2004) as “ a process of learning by temporal association in which two events that repeatedly occur close together in time become fused in a person’s mind and produce the same response.” The major influence in learning theory is Pavlov (1902) who while carrying out an experiment into the glandular secretions during digestion noted that the dogs began to salivate when the food was about to be delivered. This gave rise to research based on this involving conditioning the animals to salivate on command. The unconditioned stimulus (US) was the food and the natural response to this stimulus was the unconditioned response (UCR), salivating. Next a conditioned stimulus (CS) such as ringing of a bell was introduced. This process is called pairing. After several repetitions the dogs had become conditioned to the bell and would salivate not only in response to the food but also to the bell. This is then called the conditioned response (CR). However it has been criticised as being a one-dimensional approach to behaviour and that it doesn’t take into account free will and individual differences when applied to humans. Also humans and animals have the ability to adapt their behaviour when new information is introduced. They have made a conscious decision to respond in a way that if beneficial to them. Rachman, S. (1977a)

In order to sufficiently explain how learning theory has created a phobia in Hakim and possible ways to help him to overcome this it is necessary to go into the nature of phobias. The APA, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, (1994). Characterise specific phobia which Cynophobia is classed under as “an irrational fear of a specific object or situation, which is avoided at all cost or endured with great distress. Four subtypes are recognized in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-IV): animal (e.g., spiders), natural environmental (e.g., heights, water), situational (e.g., flying, closed spaces), blood-injection-injury (e.g., blood, dentist), and an “other” category for phobias that do not fit into the designated subtypes.”

Classical conditioning attempts to explain phobia acquisition in terms of a learned response. This links with the study conducted by Watson & Rayner (1920), “Little Albert”. In which they used the principles laid down by Pavlov to condition a child to be fearful of a white rat. This involved the striking of an iron bar which produced a noise (UCS) when in the presence of a rat (CS). After this was repeated many times the child cried out at the sight of the white rat even when the noise was not produced. However this study not only being highly unethical by today’s standards has been criticised that there is little evidence that Albert developed any sort of rat phobia. Harris, (1979)

All this suggests that classical conditioning was responsible for phobia acquisition, though it was later revised that a fear brought on in this manner also acts to reinforce it. (Mowrer, 1960), Eysenck & Rachman, (1965). They have learned to avoid the stimulus that causes them to be anxious therefore perpetuating the phobia and having little chance of loosing it through extinction. The study of “Little Albert” suggests a possible cause of Hakim’s phobia. Some incident involving a dog in early life may have triggered the phobia. However this in itself brings up a number of issues with this as a main cause. Rachman, (1977) found several difficulties...
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