How Social Cognitive Theory Explains Phobias

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Social cognitive theory is a subcategory of cognitive theory that focuses on the effects that others have on our behavior. It is a form of learning theory but differs from other learning theories such as behaviorism in several important ways.

This approach suggests that the development of phobias is influenced by observing fearful responses in others. According to this theory, children develop phobias by observing the fearful, anxious behaviors of parents or caregivers.

What Is Social Cognitive Theory?

Expert opinions differ on exactly what separates social cognitive theory from the more general social learning theory. In general, however, these principles can be used to define social cognitive theory.

  1. People learn by observing others—a process known as vicarious learning—not only through their own direct experiences.
  2. Although learning can modify behavior, people do not always apply what they have learned. Individual choice is based on perceived or actual consequences of behavior.
  3. People are more likely to follow the behaviors modeled by someone with whom they can identify. The more perceived commonalities and/or emotional attachments between the observer and the model, the more likely the observer will learn from the model.
  4. The degree of self-efficacy that a learner possesses directly affects their ability to learn. Self-efficacy is a fundamental belief in one’s ability to achieve a goal. If you believe that you can learn new behaviors, you will be much more successful in doing so.

Just like other behaviors, social cognitive theory proposes that phobic responses are learned in the same way. Researchers have found that the fears learned by observing the reactions of others are similar to phobias learned through direct experience.

What Is a Phobia?

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that involves an intense, persistent, and irrational fear of something. This can involve the fear of a specific object, place, situation, activity, animal, event, or people. 

While everyone has things that they are afraid of, a phobia is a more excessive and pervasive fear that leads to symptoms that can create problems in a person's daily life and ability to function. In some cases, people may go to great lengths to avoid the thing they fear or may experience panic attacks if they are exposed to or even think about that thing.

Being faced with a threat triggers the body's fight-or-flight response, which helps prepare you to either stay and deal with the danger or quickly escape. Research suggests that the amygdala, a structure in the brain associated with fear responses, plays an important part in the experience of phobias.

How People Develop Phobias

Social cognitive theory may explain why some people develop phobias. Many phobias stem from early childhood when our parents were our greatest influences and role models.

One significant risk factor for phobias is having a family history of phobic disorders. For example, research has shown that having parents with phobic disorders increases the risk of developing a phobia as well as other types of mental disorders.

In a 2019 study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers found that observing anticipatory fear responses in others could lead to increases in observational fear learning.

It is important to note, however, that there is no single cause for phobias. For many people, phobias may emerge due to the influence of a number of factors that may include:

  • Cultural influences: Social influences including cultural factors can also play a role in the development of some phobias. 
  • Genetics: Research has found that genetics may play at least some role in the development of phobias.
  • Experiences: Having frightening or traumatic experiences increases the risk that a person might develop a phobia.

Other factors that may also contribute to the onset of phobias include illness, the presence of other mental health conditions, and substance or alcohol use.


Social cognitive theory can also be used in the treatment of phobias. Many people with phobias want to overcome them and have a strong belief in their ability to do so. However, they get stuck when trying to unlearn the automatic fear response. Strategies that may be used in the treatment of phobias include:


Sometimes medications for phobias may be prescribed to help people cope with symptoms of anxiety. This may include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), benzodiazepines, and other anxiolytics.

While SSRIs are a type of antidepressant often used to treat depression, they can also be effective for relieving symptoms of anxiety. Because benzodiazepines can be habit-forming, in addition to other potential risks, they may be used in low dosages on a short-term basis. 

Some types of SSRIs that may be prescribed to treat anxiety associated with phobias include Paxil (paroxetine), Prozac (fluoxetine), and Zoloft (sertraline).

Medications for anxiety are often most effective when used in conjunction with psychotherapy.


Psychotherapy strategies that are often used to treat phobias include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. CBT involves identifying and changing the negative, anxious thoughts that contribute to phobias, while exposure therapy involves gradually and progressively being exposed to the feared object.

A therapist may incorporate social cognitive strategies during treatment by modeling calm behaviors in response to fear objects. If there is a good relationship of trust and rapport with the therapist, modeling the behavior can help. In this situation, the therapist calmly goes through whatever process is being asked of the individual seeking help.

A Word From Verywell

Social learning is just one of the many different factors that can contribute to the development of a phobia. Fortunately, there are effective treatments available that can help relieve the symptoms of phobias. You should talk to your doctor if you are experiencing phobia or other anxiety symptoms, particularly if they are interfering with your ability to function in your daily life.

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