Needless to say that having a phobia is normal for every sane person, as everybody with a healthy mind is afraid of something. He or she could be afraid of some creature (fictional and/or real), of some event, some situation etc. Every fear or phobia of something is a kind of anxiety disorder, which is generally being defined as uncontrollable and prevalent fear of a situation or an object, which is needed to be avoided by a person. It is identified by the person’s mind as a real danger to his/her existence, even when a situation or an object appears to be objectively safe; therefore, every phobia is considered to be an irrational reaction to objects (Bourne, 2005). Nevertheless, despite its irrationality, every phobia of something is normal for every psychically healthy person, just like it has been said before. However, the sources of these phobias remain uncertain, as there is no clear explanation for whether the phobias are acquired by a person through the course of his/her life, or his/her fears are influenced naturally and/or genetically. The current paper will provide various opinions on these questions with a brief evaluation of them.
First it should be noted that Rachman offered three potential causes of acquiring any fear: informational acquisition, vicarious acquisition and classical conditioning (Rachman, 1977). Nevertheless, the foundation for all the researches regarding understanding the acquisition of phobias has been established by Pavlov and his model, similar with classical conditioning. It lies within a concept of a situation, when a neural one and aversive stimulus are combined together; for example, when an electric shock has been delivered to an animal in a certain room, this animal might acquire a fear of not only the shock itself, but of the room too. The same model has been described by behaviorists as conditioned response model, where the electric shock or unconditioned stimulus is combined with the room as conditioned stimulus. Eventually, the combination of conditioned and unconditioned stimulus form conditioned response (Rachman, 1977).
As for the vicarious fear acquisition, it lies within observational learning and observational acquiring of fear. A phobia is being acquired as not a subject of person’s experience that has made him/her fear something, but by observing others experiencing the situation and their reaction towards it. For example, when a child becomes an observer of someone exposing fear towards something or someone, the child might acquire the same phobia, as well. Moreover, through observational learning not only humans, but non-human primates tend to acquire fears of potentially hazardous situations and/or objects. For example, there was a study that has proved that non-human primates had been taught to fear snakes after observing the reactions of their parents that were full of fear. Nevertheless, another study has proved that even taking in consideration that a phobia can potentially be acquired from animals/humans parents, a personal reaction towards a physical expression of phobia might change the reaction to it, in other words, it may potentially increase this phobia or remove it completely (Rachman, 1977).
A third way to acquire a phobia is informational acquisition, which has not been studied enough due to being too obvious for the researchers. Rachman states that he have not had a possibility to study this type of acquisition and prove it, as a result; however, he accepts the fact that such type of acquisition cannot be denied. Just like with the vicarious acquisition, the information given to a child from parents can potentially build several phobias; however, Rachman also notes that through course of life, the fears acquired informationally would rather decrease than severe. Moreover, he explains the informational acquisition as a reason for people not to build phobias, which must have been occurred according to the conditioning theory (Rachman, 1977). Therefore, there has been conducted a strong model of fear acquisition that is still being developed and researched. Nevertheless, the question of whether the fears are inherited or acquired remains disputed, as there is variety of researches that prove the fears being inherited.
For example, Dias and Ressler have published a study that proved the aforementioned fact. They have registered the fact that the mice, which were taught to fear a certain smell of a chemical (acetophenone) tend to pass this fear to their pups (Dias & Ressler, 2013). When compared to control group of mice, the ones that were born from chemical-fearing parents expressed anxiety even when feeling the smell of a chemical for the first time; moreover, the same fact was true for their next generation. They state that such reactions have been provoked by the epigenetic changes; however, they state that the future researches are needed to prove the fact that certain fears can be inherited.
The researchers have also discovered the differences in the quantity of neurons that generate protein responsible for detecting acetophenone in mice that were afraid of it with the same of normal mice. In addition, the structures of brain, which receive signals from these neurons, are also bigger in mice that were trained to fear the chemical. Moreover, there were detected the methylation tags in the sperm of these mice. The tags were on the gene Olfr-151, which is responsible for encoding the acetophenone receptor; thus, the researchers offered such fact as an evidence of inheritance of the fears. Nevertheless, their research and their theory is being questioned and criticized, as the scholars refuse to accept the fact that the gene can be influenced by methylation (Hughes, 2013). Still, the researchers have made the first step to understand the possible inheritance of the phobias and fears, thought, they need to study this question more profoundly in order to have a considerable evidence for genetic factors reasoning the fears.
Summarizing everything that was mentioned above, it should be stated that there is a strong model of fear acquisition that has been developed by a number of scholars. They have proved the fact that mostly each fear can be identified as acquired according to Rachman’s research. However, the latest studies have started to state that some fears can be inherited, just like Dias and Ressler’s research did. The question of causes of phobias and fears still remains disputed with each theory being questioned and criticized; however, in order to have a clear picture of what exactly causes a particular phobia, further researches must be conducted.
Bourne, E. (2005). The anxiety & phobia workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Dias, B., & Ressler, K. (2013). Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nature Neuroscience, 17(1), 89-96. doi:10.1038/nn.3594
Hughes, V. (2013). Mice Inherit Specific Memories, Because Epigenetics?. National Geographic Official Website. Retrieved 17 July 2015, from http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/12/01/mice-inherit-specific-memories-because-epigenetics/
Rachman, S. (1977). THE CONDITIONING THEORY OF FEAR- ACQUISITION: A CRITICAL EXAMINATION. Behav. Rcs. & Therapy., 15, 375 - 387. Retrieved from http://www.psychology.nottingham.ac.uk/staff/mxh/c83mlp/phobias/Rachman%20(1977).pdf