Why Is Information Processing Important for Phobias?

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In cognitive psychology, information processing is an approach to understanding mental processes as though they were similar to how a computer works. Helping cure phobias can in some respects be thought of as restructuring a person’s “information processing” by replacing one set of thoughts with a second, more positive set. ​

What are the 2 Types of Information Processing?

The brain is considered to be roughly equivalent to a computer, providing the necessary hardware for the computational process to take place. Our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are the actual computations.

One way information processing has been conceptualized is as bottom-up or top-down in nature. In bottom-up processing, data is considered on its own merits without preconceptions or expectations. For example, In an ideal world, a jury would perform only bottom-up processing. That is, they won't use previous personal experiences or knowledge to help make a decision, they would only use the details presented to them in the case.

In the real world, however, most of our thinking appears to be top-down. Our preconceived notions cause us to interpret data and perform actions (habits) according to our previous experiences. This type of processing is vital for decisions that must be made quickly. In much of our day-to-day lives, there is simply no time to analyze every possible solution to a problem using bottom-up processing. 

What Does Information Processing Have to Do With Phobias?

Certain aspects of information processing models of cognition may have relevance to the understanding and treatment of phobias.

Like debugging a computer program, we may be able to remove faulty self-talk messages and replace them with healthier thoughts, ultimately leading to more appropriate behaviors and feelings.

For example, when Jessica told her therapist about an ongoing phobia of snakes, the therapist suspected that Jessica's negative opinion and past thoughts on snakes was causing her fear. Using information processing, Jessica's therapist taught her to replace her previous thoughts about snakes with healthier beliefs, ultimately helping her reframe her mindset and get rid of her fear. More specifically, instead of associating words like "scary" or "disgusting" when thinking of a snake, Jessica learned about them and learned that they can be "helpful" and "harmless." 

Of particular interest to researchers is evaluating information processing in social phobias. Multiple external factors (top-down thinking) are involved in the development of a social phobia. For example, a person may have had a past bullying experience that caused a fear of being a group, or they're afraid of what others may think, say, or do. Often times, it is negative thoughts, often not based on truth, that drive the phobia forward. Restructuring and rationalizing those thoughts have proved to be helpful. 

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  • "Information Processing." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web.
  • Clark DM, Mcmanus F. Information processing in social phobia. Biol Psychiatry. 2002;51(1):92-100.