Tabula Rasa (Blank Slate) in Psychology

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What Is Tabula Rasa?

Tabula rasa translates to "blank slate." In therapy, it refers to either the idea that we are solely the product of our upbringing and experiences, or, it refers to the technique therapists use when they themselves become "blank," and allow the recipient to project their own needs, desires, and beliefs onto them.

In psychology, the term “blank slate,” or tabula rasa, actually has two meanings. The first refers to a belief that at birth, all humans are born with the ability to become literally anything or anyone. This belief downplays the effects of genetics and biology on the development of the human personality.

The second definition of “blank slate” refers to a technique that was once used heavily in psychoanalysis and is still employed by some therapists today. When using this technique, the therapist is careful to avoid revealing any personal information about themselves.

Tabula Rasa in Behaviorism

Behaviorists believe you are born with your mind as a blank slate and you learn all your behavior from the environment you live in. Therefore, therapy focuses on unlearning unproductive behaviors. Behaviorists posit any symptoms of a psychological disorder are the result of classical and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning is also known as learning by association and causes most phobias. Meanwhile, operant conditioning refers to learning by positive or negative reinforcement and, for example, causes eating disorders. Modes of behavior therapy commonly used to treat phobia include:

  • Systematic desensitization
  • Aversion therapy
  • Flooding
  • Exposure therapy and virtual reality exposure therapy
  • Behavioral rehearsal
  • Skills training

Tabula Rasa in Therapy

Tabula rasa is also a principle that underlies several different therapeutic techniques. Such techniques suggest that people are born with a blank slate that is then changed through learning experiences. Therapy then focuses on changing these learned beliefs or behaviors.

For example, tabula rosa suggests that people are blank slates, but a terrifying experience as a child may lead to developing a specific phobia. Therapy would then focus on changing these associations and developing new coping strategies, beliefs, and behaviors.

Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is an effective treatment for specific phobia (a fear of a specific object or situation) and social phobia (social anxiety disorder). The theory is the phobia is a learned behavior you imposed on your blank slate. Therefore, you can unlearn your feelings of anxiety.

The therapist helps you learn to relax in what's referred to as your "target situation." After reaching a state of deep relaxation, you vividly imagine your target situation repeatedly.

Eventually, you learn not to react, which allows you to feel more comfortable and confident the next time you face your fear.

Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy is useful in cases where you have an attraction to your bad behavior and despite the pleasure, both you and your therapist acknowledge it's an undesirable trait.

Tabula rasa suggests that you were born with a blank slate but learned a destructive behavior. Aversion therapy may help change your associations and avoid these maladaptive behaviors.

Aversion therapy may help a person with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) overcome their addiction. The therapist helps them associate their undesirable behavior with an extremely unpleasant stimulus.

For example, the therapy might ask the individual to sip an alcoholic drink after they have taken a medication to induce nausea. After vomiting, the hope is the smell of alcohol will trigger this new and unpleasant memory, causing them to skip the alcohol next time.

Flooding Therapy

Proponents of flooding believe in confronting fears. The goals is to ameliorate a phobia by flooding the environment with the situation or object a person fears. Sort of like teaching someone how to swim by throwing them into the deep end of a pool.

The idea behind this treatment is that fear is a response with limited time and the body will exhaust itself by going through the stages of extreme anxiety.

For example, therapy might involve sitting in a closet for several hours if you are claustrophobic. Once you calm down, you've changed your negative association with your fear into a positive one. Behaviorists also believe flooding prevents avoidance behaviors, which reinforce your maladaptive condition.

Exposure Therapy

Like other technqiues, this approach assumes that you have developed a phobia because of an experience that altered the blank slate you were born with. Exposure therapy works by exposing yourself to the source of your phobia over time. So if you're afraid of spiders, for example, your therapist might start by showing you a picture of a spider.

Later in the process, you might look at a live spider or even hold one. With each step, the "power" of spiders to scare you diminishes until the phobia is gone. A newer form of this is virtual reality exposure, which allows you to accomplish the same goals via virtual reality technology, thereby avoiding the need to, for example, find real spiders.

A 2019 review in Frontiers in Psychology found that virtual reality exposure therapy is no less effective than the non-virtual kind and anticipates that with further advances in technology, it might one day be considered more effective.

Behavioral Rehearsal

For patients who fear situations, rather than things, a therapist might help you imagine a difficult situation. For example, if you fear a large party, the therapist might guide you through the process of facing and successfully dealing with it, step-by-step.

Skills Training

For some people, phobias develop as a result of not having the appropriate skills to handle certain situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy skills training can take the form of direct instruction or role-playing.

For instance, the therapist might pretend to be an interviewer for a job, and you would pretend to be interviewing for the job. The idea is that you'd have learned some skills to implement during a real job interview.

Criticisms of Tabula Rasa

Not everyone agrees that people are born with a completely blank slate. While behaviorism suggests that learning and experience play a primary role in learning, other theories have stressed the contribution of genetic factors.

For example, while learning may play an important role in the development of phobias, other factors, including genetics, personality traits, and brain differences, also contribute to their development. Research has shown that people who have relatives with phobias or other types of anxiety disorders are at a higher risk of developing similar conditions.

People with anxious personality traits may also be more likely to form fear generalizations, increasing their vulnerability to anxiety disorders.


As the idea of tabula rasa suggests, experience does play an important part in the development of mental disorders. However, factors such as genetics, brain chemistry, brain structure, and personality also influence behavior and mental health.

A Word From Verywell

Tabula rasa is a theory of knowledge in psychology suggesting that people are born without innate mental content and that all knowledge originates from the external world. This approach played an important role in the development of the school of thought known as behaviorism, which suggests that all human learning stems from experience.

This idea also influenced the development of a number of different therapy approaches. Such techniques suggest that psychological problems are the result of learning, so therapy works to modify the acquired information that was imposed on a person's blank slate.

5 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.
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  4. Loken EK, Hettema JM, Aggen SH, Kendler KS. The structure of genetic and environmental risk factors for fears and phobiasPsychol Med. 2014;44(11):2375-2384. doi:10.1017/S0033291713003012

  5. Sep MSC, Steenmeijer A, Kennis M. The relation between anxious personality traits and fear generalization in healthy subjects: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2019;107:320-328. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.09.029

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