Behavior Modeling for the Treatment of Phobias

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In social learning theory, behavior modeling is the precise demonstration of the desired behavior. According to the theory, we learn not only by doing but by watching what others do. In a therapeutic setting, behavior modeling is purposeful and positive, teaching clients healthier ways of behaving. But behavior modeling can also be negative, such as a parent passing on a prejudiced way of dealing with others or a friend teaching a child to use drugs. Therapeutic behavior modeling is often used to help clients change previously learned negative behaviors.

How Behavior Modeling Helps Treat Phobias

Albert Bandura was a psychologist who discovered how behavioral modeling could help people overcome phobias. In his work with people with snake phobias, Bandura found that when patients observed others who had overcome the same fear handling snakes, the current patients were more likely to find relief. When compared to persuasion and observing the psychologist handle the snakes, Bandura found behavior modeling by the former patients was more effective.

Behavior modeling is used effectively to treat people with a variety of mental health concerns, from anxiety disorders to post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder to eating disorders. It has been found to be particularly effective in the treatment of various phobias.

Similar to another treatment for phobias known as systematic desensitization, behavior modeling exposes the phobic patient to the object or situation they fear, however, the confrontation is experienced by another person rather than by the patient. When witnessing the model respond to the phobia with relaxation rather than fear, the patient has a reference framework for imitating that response. In theory, the patient would be able to transfer this new response to real-life situations.

Benefits and Limitations

When used alone, behavior modeling has been found effective for short-term learning. However, behavior modeling alone is unlikely to produce long-term behavior change unless it is combined with role-playing and reinforcement such as rewards. Used together in sequence, modeling, role-play, and reinforcement improves the effectiveness of this therapy.

In addition, other factors have been shown to increase the effectiveness of behavior modeling therapy. These include: 

  • Models that are: very skilled in acting out the behavior; likable or admirable; warm and friendly; the same sex and age; and rewarded immediately for the performance of the particular behavior.
  • Target behaviors that are: clearly demonstrated and include few unnecessary details; presented from the least difficult level of behavior to the most difficult level; and enacted by several different models.

One Technique Among Many

Behavior modeling is one technique used to try to help patients with phobias and other mental health conditions. When it doesn't achieve the desired response or change, patients should be encouraged to try different techniques, approaches or medications to help them overcome their fears. Many other behavioral modification techniques are available and some are more successful for certain patients.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Husband J, Chong I. Behavior Modeling. Ency of Child Behavior and Development. 2011. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_307

  2. Guerrin B. Albert Bandura and his work. Rech Soins Infirm. 2012;(108):106-16. doi:10.3917/rsi.108.0106

  3. Appukuttan D. Strategies to manage patients with dental anxiety and dental phobia: literature review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dent. 2016;8:35-50. doi:10.2147%2FCCIDE.S63626

  4. Tadayon R. Bandura's Social Learning Theory & Social Cognitive Learning Theory. University of Science and Culture. 2011

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.