Development Through Operant or Classical Conditioning
Phobias and Addictions:
Development Through Operant or Classical Conditioning
How and why phobias and addictions develop are a continual area of research for psychologists and their colleagues in related fields. While many theories exist as to why people have phobias or become addicted, including genetic predisposition and others, the roles of classical conditioning and operant conditioning in the conditions of phobias and addictions is an important area to explore because it provides more information on why the conditions exist and new possibilities in treatment. Phobias can be developed through classical conditioning and addictions can be developed through operant conditioning, as well as extinction in both cases.
Classical and operant conditioning are two different methods of learning. Classical conditioning is also sometimes referred to as “Pavlovian conditioning,” named after the Russian Physicist Ivan Pavlov “for his development of a model for describing a basic non-conscious instinctual type of learning” (Hall 1998, para. 2). In classical conditioning, a subject comes to associate an unconditioned stimulus with a conditioned stimulus. For example, in a classical conditioning experiment, a buzzer, which is the unconditioned stimulus, is sounded right before a dog gets a treat, which is the unconditioned stimulus. Eventually, the dog will begin to salivate at the sound of the buzzer even if a treat is not presented. It is natural, or unconditioned, that the dog will salivate at the presentation of a treat, but it is not natural that the dog will salivate at the sound of a buzzer. Therefore, through classical conditioning, the dog has learned to salivate at the sound of the buzzer because of the training. Extinction in classical conditioning occurs after a kind of reverse training; for example, if the sounding of the buzzer is no longer followed by a treat, eventually the dog will not salivate at the sound of the buzzer (Hall 1998, para. 8).
Operant conditioning is similar to classical conditioning in that it can include positive reinforcement, but it depends on the action of the subject. Operant conditioning can also include negative reinforcement and punishment (Levine 1999, para. 1). An example of positive reinforcement is that a hungry monkey in a cage learns that pressing a button will deliver food. An example of negative reinforcement is if a dog’s owner places sonic devices on the edge of the yard; as the dog gets closer to the edge of the yard, the sonic device becomes louder and more unbearable as the edge is approached. When the dog moves away from the edge of the yard, the discomfort ceases, and the dog learns to stay within the yard. An example of punishment is a dog wearing a shock collar; when the dog performs an undesirable behavior such as going out of its owner’s sight or chewing on a piece of furniture, the owner activates a remote device that provides a shock to the dog, therefore discouraging the undesirable behavior. Extinction in operant conditioning is similar to that of classical conditioning. If the expected positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or punishment no longer occurs the possibility increases that the conditioned behavior will cease altogether.
Phobias can be developed through classical conditioning. One famous example of classical conditioning of phobias is the experiment of John B. Watson, known as the “Father of Behaviorism” and his son Albert (Hall 1998, para. 5). In Watson’s experiment, he clashed two bars together loudly behind Albert’s head while Albert was playing with a rabbit; after enough experiences of playing with the rabbit and hearing the loud sound behind his head, Albert came to fear the rabbit.
The experiment with Albert and the rabbit shows how fears and phobias can develop through artificial circumstances, but it is reasonable that phobias can develop without the assistance of an experimenter. For example, while most people feel cautious around creatures such as bees, spiders, and snakes that can be poisonous, people with a phobia have feelings that go beyond simple caution. Phobias elicit feelings of uncontrolled anxiety, the desire to do everything possible to avoid the source of the phobia, the inability to function as normal because of the anxiety caused by a phobia, a feeling of powerlessness due to the phobia, physical and psychological reactions like sweating, rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing (“Phobias” 2011, para. 5). Investigations by researchers found that in one experiment, many of the subjects reported classical conditioning onsets of their phobias, for example a traumatic event such as an automobile accident, plane crash, elevator accident, and so forth were directly associated with the phobia (Menzies & Harris 1997, 135).
An interesting facet of phobia research found by Menzies and Harris (1997) is that more common phobias, “such as things [like] snakes, spiders, and heights are relatively common compared to fears of . . . automobiles or electricity power points, because of the different evolutionary time-frame in which humans have experienced them” (1997, p. 134). Many of the participants in the study did not report or remember any classical conditioning episodes with “evolutionarily-relevant” things like spiders or snakes, but the researchers admit that “it is possible that these people have been subject to associative learning episodes that they cannot recall” (Menzies & Harris 1997, pp. 135-136). However, it seems that at least some classical conditioning must happen for a phobia to occur. A child who goes to bed and finds a large spider in the sheets could develop a phobia of spiders, his bed, or both.
Another interesting study regarding fears, conducted by Rowles, Lipp, and Mallan (2012) demonstrated that certain types of fears resist extinction. Their experiment reinforced the subjects’ fears when exposed to pictures of angry human faces by giving the subjects electroshocks when the angry faces were viewed (Rowles, Lipp, & Mallan 2012, p. 376). The researchers found that “fear conditioned to angry faces . . . is affected by the instruction/removal of the electrode procedure whereas fear conditioned to snakes and spiders is not suggests a difference in the learning processes that underlie animal and socially related fears (Rowles, Lipp, & Mallan 2012, p. 379). Although phobias can result from classical conditioning, such as abuse or other traumatic events, it appears that an evolutionary predisposition plays an important part in common, non-socially related phobias such as those to snakes or spiders. Phobias to other things, such as rabbits, automobiles, or electrical power points tend to have specific or repeated events leading to the phobia. Understanding this difference in classical conditioning and extinction for phobias is an important aspect to investigate especially for those providing treatment for those suffering from phobias.
Operant conditioning can play an important part in the development of addictions. Some researchers use an aspect of social learning theory and operant conditioning to describe how addictions develop. For example, “Social learning theory has been tested specifically on adolescent drug use and drinking (Akers et al 1979). The theory assumes that social behaviors are learned through operant (instrumental) conditioning and imitation” (Kandel 1980, p. 253). Kandel elaborates, “‘groups which control individuals’ major sources of reinforcement and punishment and expose them to behavioral models and normative decisions’ (Akers et al 1979: p. 838, italics in original)” are the ones providing the operant conditioning (1980, p. 253). In other words, when an adolescent chooses to use drugs or alcohol, the behavior of his peers towards the drug or alcohol use will provide reinforcement for that behavior.
Adolescents are particularly susceptible to peer response because they are reaching an age when they seek to develop an identity for themselves beyond that of their own families. Whether the adolescent or young adult encounters opportunities to engage in drug or alcohol use in junior high, high school, or college, he will look to the response of his peers to determine whether the behavior is acceptable. Some groups may encourage binge-drinking or indiscriminate drug use and positively reinforce it by cheering the partaker on, always having substances available and encouraging their consumption, and develop bonding over the illicit or legitimate obtaining of the preferred substances. These experiences qualify as part of operant conditioning because they become part of the positive experience of consuming the substance itself.
Operant conditioning can influence addiction at any age. When a substance is readily available, a person can learn that simply partaking of a particular substance such as nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, MDMA, and so forth creates an effect that he finds to be pleasant, providing positive reinforcement that in some cases can lead to addiction. The operant conditioning occurs as the person decides to take the substance again and finds it to be a similarly pleasant experience. The longer the person continues deciding to take the substance, the more this type of operant conditioning can lead toward addiction.
Some studies have shown that operant conditioning in addiction continues when the effect of a drug has worn off. For example, in a study by Cooper, Shi, and Woods (2010), further operant conditioning was “contingent upon withdrawal state, with enhanced opiod self-administration emerging after behavioral expression of withdrawal was observed” (p. 369). Although not all substances are physically addicting, some are physically addicting and produce unpleasant side effects upon cessation of use. Researchers observed that “in opioid-dependent nonhuman primates, increases in opioid self-administration observed during withdrawal were maintained several weeks after the behavioral manifestations of withdrawal dissipated” (Cooper, Shi, & Woods 2010, p. 370). In other words, without the drug, the unpleasant sensations lead the individual to take the drug again and in increased amounts, therefore strengthening the addiction. The researchers conclude, “these findings add to the current literature challenging the role of negative reinforcement in withdrawal-associated enhancement of operant responding for select reinforcers” (Cooper, Shi, & Woods 2010, p. 377). What this suggests is that treatments involving negative reinforcement such as letting people experience the pains of withdrawal, treating addictions with other drugs that make taking the addict’s drug of choice unpleasant, or treatments such as hypnotherapy that make the addict believe that taking the drug is an unpleasant experience may not work. It suggests that once withdrawal symptoms, anti-drug pharmaceutical treatment that induces unpleasant side effects, or hypnotherapy treatment ceases, an addict is more likely to relapse, and may even consume more of the drug of choice than in the past.
After reviewing various literatures concerning phobias, addictions, operant conditioning and classical conditioning, it seems that the type of conditioning in either situation is not mutually exclusive. Both classical and operant conditioning can play a part in developing an addiction, although it seems less likely that operant conditioning would play a part in phobias. How people acquire phobias and addictions, through things like operant and classical conditioning, is very important to understand, especially for those who need treatment in order to be able to live an independent and healthy lifestyle.
Cooper, Ziva D., Shi, Yong-Gong, & Woods, James H. (2010). Psychopharmacology 212. 369-378. DOI: 10.1007/s00213-010-1966-9
Hall, Richard (1998). Classical Conditioning. Missouri University of Science and Technology Psychology World. Retrieved from http://web.mst.edu/~psyworld/classical_conditioning.htm
Kandel. Denise B. (1980). Drug and Drinking Behavior Among Youth. Annual Review of Sociology 6. 235-285.
Levine, Alan (1999). Operant Conditioning Basics. Maricopa Community Colleges. Retrieved from http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/proj/nru/opcond.html
Menzies, Ross G. & Harris, Lynne M. (1997). Mode of Onset in Evolutionary-Relevant and Evolutionary-Neutral Phobias: Evidence From a Clinical Sample. Depression and Anxiety 5. 134-136.
Phobias (2011). The Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/phobias/ds00272/dsection=symptoms
Rowles, Monique E., Lipp, Ottmar V., & Mallan, Kimberly M. (2012). On the Resistance to Extinction of Fear Conditioned to Angry Faces. Psychopharmacology 49. 375-380. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2011.01308.x