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The San Mateo CBT Clinic provides therapy for anxiety disorders in children, teens, and adults. Jonah Lakin PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), panic disorder, phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD),  social anxiety disorder/social phobia, agorophobia, emetophobia (fear of vomiting), illness anxiety disorder, trichotillomania (hair pulling), & excoriation (skin-picking).

San Mateo CBT Clinic blog about anxiety treatment

Anxiety Blog. Describes CBT principles involved in treatment for anxiety disorders in children and adults. Conditions discussed include: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), panic disorder, phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD),  social anxiety disorder/social phobia, agorophobia, emetophobia (fear of vomiting), illness anxiety disorder, trichotillomania (hair pulling), & excoriation (skin-picking).

Understanding Phobias: How Neutral Stimuli Become Scary

Jonah Lakin

Classical conditioning refers to a type of learning in which associations are made in a person’s mind. These associations pair two stimuli they may not necessarily go together. John Watson, a psychologist, used classical conditioning to induce a phobia of a white rat in a young child, known as “Little Albert.” 

Watson was conducting an experiment in an attempt to demonstrate how we come to fear things through learning and experience. Everyone is scared if they feel their life is in danger, but Watson wanted to see if he could show how some people come to fear the dentist, germs, or dogs while others do not. Watson believed he could make Little Albert fear a white rat if he taught the child to associate the rat with something scary. 

Step 1: 
Watson first presented Little Albert with a white rat. While you and I might be disgusted by a white rat, Little Albert was an infant and found him cute. Little Albert liked playing with him and showed no signs of fear.

Step 2:
Then Watson took the rat away and when he brought the rat back, he banged two metal pipes together! The loud noise scared Little Albert. 

Step 3: 
Watson repeated this procedure several times in which the introduction of the white rat was paired with the loud banging of the pipes, and in turn fear. 

Outcome:
Soon enough Little Albert became afraid of the rat; Little Albert demonstrated intense fear even if the rat was presented in the absence of the loud noise. 

Watson had been able to make an association for Little Albert. The association was: white rat & loud noise. It was as if the white rat and the loud noise became inextricably linked. As a result, Albert responded to the white rat as if it were the loud noise itself, resulting in fear. 

So, Watson reasoned that if a seemingly neutral object (such as a cute white rat), was repeatedly paired with a scary event (such as a loud noise), then one would develop a phobia to the previously neutral object (white rat). 

We also know that if the scary event is intense enough, then simply pairing the two things together one time may be enough for a phobia to develop. For instance, if someone was mugged while wearing their favorite sweater, they might notice that they feel fear every time they put on the sweater. Just like the white rat became linked to the loud noise, the sweater becomes linked to the mugging. As a result, the sweater itself induces fear even though it isn’t intrinsically dangerous.

 - Dr. Lakin