Theories on How People Develop Phobias

Experts are not entirely sure why phobias develop. However, there are numerous theories, and they can be classified into three different categories:

  • Psychoanalytic
  • Learning-based
  • Biological

It is unlikely that these three categories are mutually exclusive as chances are that multiple causes interact in individuals to cause phobias. For example, it may be that biological differences in the brain are triggered by an experience or something in that person's environment, or that a negative experience may lead to a learned response.

Look at these theories and you'll see how complex the development of a phobia is, and why it likely stems from a combination of many factors.

Psychoanalytic Theory

Scared woman leaning against a wall

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Sigmund Freud is popularly known as the father of modern psychology. His pioneering structural theory was largely based on the three stages of conscience:

  • Id
  • Ego
  • Superego

The id is the most primal and instinctive part of the mind and is the basis of such primitive emotions as fear and anxiety.

The superego is the selfless higher conscience, adding value judgments and the concept of guilt. The ego is the rational moderator between the two. A significant portion of the ego’s duty is to control the impulses of the id.

According to this theory, phobias are based on anxiety reactions of the id that have been repressed by the ego. In other words, the currently feared object is not the original subject of the fear.

Learning Theory

young girl looking under bed with flashlight
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The learning theory is a broadly inclusive set of theories that are based on principles of behaviorism and cognitive theory. Ivan Pavlov pioneered the learning theory by showing that dogs could be trained to salivate when a bell was rung. Since then, numerous psychologists have built on Pavlov’s work to develop more theories of human behavior.

According to the learning theory, phobias develop when fear responses are reinforced or punished. Both reinforcement and punishment can be positive or negative.

Positive reinforcement is the presentation of something positive, such as a parent rewarding a child for staying away from a snake. Positive punishment is the presentation of something negative or unfavorable to prevent that behavior from occurring again, such as a child being bitten by a snake.

Biological Basis

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The medical model of psychology states that mental disorders are caused by physiological factors. This theory focuses on neuropsychology, which is a branch of psychology that is dedicated to studying the structure and function of the brain.

Neuropsychologists have identified certain genetic factors that may play a role in the development of phobias. Although the research is still in its early phases, it is known that certain medications that affect the brain’s chemistry are helpful in treating phobias. Most of these treatments are intended to help relieve anxiety by increasing the level of a chemical called serotonin.

A Word From Verywell

At present, we have no definitive answer to what causes phobias. Chances are, however, that there are multiple causes, and that different people may develop phobias for different reasons.

In some cases, a combination of genetic and physiological issues may be at play. For others, the cause may be psychological or environmental. Fortunately, exposure treatments are effective for phobias, regardless of their causes.

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