Learning Theory and Phobias

Therapist talking to a client

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Learning theory is a broad term that includes multiple theories of behavior that are based on the learning process. Learning theory is rooted in the work of Ivan Pavlov, who was able to train dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. Many treatments for phobias are based on these learning theories.


Behaviorism is a learning theory that tries to explain human behavior and responses in terms of learned behaviors. This thought originated with Ivan Pavlov and his theory known as classical conditioning. The dogs’ salivation was an automatic response to the presence of meat. By pairing the presentation of the meat with the ringing of a bell, Pavlov was able to condition the dogs to respond to a new stimulus (the bell). Eventually, the dogs salivated when they heard the bell, even when the meat was not present.

B.F. Skinner elaborated on Pavlov’s theory. His work introduced operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, behavior that is reinforced continues, while behavior that is punished or not reinforced is eventually stopped.

Both reinforcement and punishment can be either negative or positive, depending on whether a positive or negative reward is being given or taken away. Today, reinforcement is seen as more effective than punishment in changing behavior.

In terms of phobia treatment, behavioral strategies might involve forming new, more positive associations with feared objects or situations. For example, a person might practice relaxation techniques when they are exposed to what they fear. Eventually, the association with the relaxation response may replace the anxiety response.

Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory focuses on an individual's thoughts as a crucial determinate of his or her emotions and behaviors. Our responses make sense within our own view of the world. Therefore, according to cognitive theory, it is important to change a person’s thoughts and beliefs in order to change his or her behaviors. Information processing is how this mental process is commonly described with reference to phobias.

According to cognitive theory, irrational responses are the result of automatic thoughts and erroneous beliefs. Cognitive reframing is a technique that is used to help the client examine his or beliefs and develop healthier ways of viewing the situation. Techniques such as thought stopping are used to help the individual stop automatic thoughts and replace them with new thoughts.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory is a variation on cognitive theory that addresses the effects that others have on our behavior. According to the principles of social cognitive theory, people learn not only through their own experiences but also by watching others. Whether or not people act on what they have learned depends on many factors, including how strongly they identify with the model, their perception of the consequences of the behavior, and their beliefs about their own ability to change old patterns.

Social cognitive theory may help to explain the origin of many phobias. It can also be used to help treat phobias. A common technique is for the therapist to model a new behavior before asking the individual to perform it.


Cognitive-behavioral theory is a blended theory that incorporates both cognitive and behavioral elements. According to cognitive-behaviorism, our responses are based on a complex interaction between thoughts and behaviors, with thoughts and feelings playing a major role in our behavior.

Modern cognitive-behaviorism also incorporates elements of feeling-based learning theories, such as rational-emotive theory. According to these principles, we are complex human beings whose responses are based on ongoing interactions between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is necessary to address all of these components in order to successfully change our reactions.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is currently the most popular method of therapy for treating phobias. This is a type of brief therapy in which successful results may sometimes be achieved in only a few sessions. This is important to many people whose health insurance plans may limit the number of visits they can make to a therapist per year.

Which Learning Theory Is Most Popular for Addressing Phobias?

As noted above, the most popular therapy for treating phobias at the current time is the blended theory of cognitive behavior therapy. This theory addresses the complex thoughts and feelings which interact to determine a particular behavior. This approach, as noted, is likely also the most rapid approach to addressing phobias, something important not only due to health care costs but in helping people cope with these sometimes difficult to treat concerns.

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