Conditioning and Learning
Research shows that conditioning and learning also play a role in
Classical conditioning: People can acquire anxiety
responses, especially phobias, through classical conditioning and then
maintain them through operant conditioning. A neutral stimulus becomes
associated with anxiety by being paired with an anxiety-producing
stimulus. After this classical conditioning process has occurred, a
person may begin to avoid the conditioned anxiety-producing stimulus.
This leads to a decrease in anxiety, which reinforces the avoidance
through an operant conditioning process. For example, a near drowning
experience might produce a phobia of water. Avoiding oceans, pools, and
ponds decreases anxiety about water and reinforces the behavior of
Evolutionary predisposition: Researchers such as
Martin Seligman have proposed that people may be more
likely to develop conditioned fears to certain objects and situations.
According to this view, evolutionary history biologically prepares
people to develop phobias about ancient dangers, such as snakes and
Observational learning: People also may
develop phobias through observational learning. For example,
children may learn to be afraid of certain objects or situations by
observing their parents’ behavior in the face of those objects or
Some researchers have suggested that people with certain styles of
thinking are more susceptible to anxiety disorders than others. Such people
have increased susceptibility for several reasons:
- They tend to see threats in harmless situations.
- They focus too much attention on situations that they perceive to
- They tend to recall threatening information better than
The personality trait of neuroticism is associated with a higher
likelihood of having an anxiety disorder.