Phobias and Addictions

Behaviors can be taught throughout life and can also be inherited at birth. Phobias and addictions are said to be developed from different conditioning techniques of learning. Classical conditioning is a learning procedure in which the subject is trained to exhibit a natural response to a man-made stimulus. Operant conditioning is another type of learning procedure. When the subject is taught to have a reaction to a certain stimulus, the subject is being trained with operant conditioning. The best way to understand how phobias and addictions can be developed by operant and classical conditioning is to first explore the differences and similarities are between the two conditionings.

Distinguishing Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Classical ConditioningOperant Conditioning

     According to Kowalski & Westen (2009), classical conditioning is “a procedure by which a previously neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response after it is paired with a stimulus that automatically elicits that response” (p. 158). Ivan Pavlov first discovered classical conditioning as he was studying the digestive systems of canines. He began to realize that the dog would water at the mouth when food was presented. Pavlov began to add outside stimuli in order to provoke the same salivation response. From this series of experiments, Pavlov created classical conditioning.

First described by B. F. Skinner, operant conditioning was created by Edward Thorndike in 1898 (Kowalski & Westen, 2009, p. 167). In this study, Thorndike would place an animal in a cage and place food outside of the cage. As the animal moved about the cage, the door was released; giving the animal the ability to eat the food. In the experiments following, the animal was able to gain access to the gift outside the cage more quickly because it had learned or was conditioned how to open the cage. These conditionings have been known to be reason for phobias and addictions because of the way in which the body is taught to associate the surroundings and the environment.

Phobias Developed by Classical Conditioning


There are many types of phobias. People may suffer from fears of crowded places, heights, insects, enclosed places, going outside, and many other objects and situations. As people grow, they learn from the environment and the conditions that surround them. When a situation arises that frightens the subject, it is likely that the subject will form a fear or phobia from the situation, which is called classical conditioning learning. When this situation is repeated, the classical conditioning learning can turn into phobias. According to Gersley (2001), an American psychologist named Marting Seligman used small amounts of electric shocks to provoke a fear of pictures of insects such as spiders; however, larger doses of electrical shocks were needed to invoke phobias of pictures representing flowers (para. 5). This is a common way for classical conditioning learning to teach behaviors that are desired or needed for survival. Phobias can be overcome or they can last a lifetime. Many psychologists believe that the same way phobias are created, they can also be relieved. The reverse of this would be addictions that are developed through operant conditioning.

Addictions Developed by Operant Conditioning


Addictions are usually formed because of an insatiable need to be either drunk or high. However, there are many other reasons that addictions are formed. Some people form addictions to actions, such as driving fast or smoking and others may form addictions to foods or places. Unfortunately, operant conditioning is the cause for many of these addictions. Most addictions are either self-induced or are learned from the environment in which the subject lives. Smoking can be learned from the subject’s parents or peers. Through operant conditioning, the subject can become unable to function without the addictive substance. Thorndike believed that the subject would use the law of effect to determine the addictive behavior. According to Kowalski & Westen (2009), the law of effect is the “tendency of an organism to produce a behavior depends on the effect the behavior has on the environment” (p. 167). Through responses, such as reinforcements and punishments, the subject can be taught either to continue the behavior or cease acting inappropriately. Parents often use this type of conditioning learning to prompt their children to act in certain ways. Addictions can be formed in the same manner because the subject receives reinforcement of feeling happy or alive when the subject is experiencing the effects of drugs or alcohol. If the experiments or the exposure to the stimulus were to stop, the subject would eventually stop having the phobia or no longer be addicted to the substance.



Extinction is none other than the disappearance of the behavior. According to Kowalski & Westen (2009), “extinction in classical conditioning refers to the process by which a conditioned response is weakened by presentation of the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus” (p. 163). In the case of Pavlov’s dog, if the bell was rung too many times without the presentation of food, the dog would stop salivating when it heard the ringing of the bell. However, the response does not completely disappear and can be regained if food is again presented with the sound of the bell. Extinction is also known to have effects in operant conditioning.

A child will only obey the rules set by the parents if the responses to the negative behaviors continue. If the child is allowed to follow through with the inappropriate behavior he or she will no longer fear the punishment and may continue to exhibit the behavior. However, just as with classical conditioning extinction, if the punishment is reintroduced, the child will again avoid the behavior.


Operant and classical conditioning play major roles in people’s lives. Through conditioning learning, a person can gain fears or phobias of certain objects and situation, as well as, addictions of substances and behaviors. If the reward or punishment is taken away, the phobia or addiction will become extinct for the subject, but can return if the subject ever experiences the response again. Although classical and operant conditioning is the reasons for many of the phobias and addictions people suffer from, they can also be cured of the adverse effects of the phobias or addictions. Psychologists can learn ways to treat certain addictions and phobias in the same ways that the people come to have them. In treating the addictions and phobias with classical and operant conditioning there is always a chance that the fears and the desires for the substances will re-emerge within the subject.


Gersley, E. (November 17, 2001). Phobias: Causes and treatments. Retrieved from

Kowalski, R. & Westen, D. (2009). Psychology (5th ed.). Retrieved from University of Phoenix, PSY300 website.

Image source for addictions: CapitalTV. (Posted: February 12, 2015). Ten most expensive addictions. Retrieved from

Image source for classical conditioning: Richards on the Brain. (n.d.). Classical conditioning. Retrieved from

Image source for mice: Rougier, N. P. (Posted: November 1, 2013). File: Classical conditioning – extinction.svg. Retrieved from

Image source for operant conditioning: (2000-2014, 2015). Operant conditioning examples. Retrieved from

Image source for phobias: Garrastegui, D. D. (Posted: November 02, 2011). Phobias. Retrieved from

Phobias and Addictions