Contributions to Society
Using Systematic Desensitisation to Treat Phobias
Systematic desensitisation uses the principles of classical conditioning to treat phobias (and some mild anxiety disorders). This suggests that conditioning begins with one automatic reflex action, which can be induced by the introduction of a second stimulus which is matched with the first (becoming the conditioned stimulus). This can explain how fears are learned, and the same principles can be used to help people overcome their fears. For example, someone with a fear of closed spaces getting on a plane is likely to develop a fear of flying, because they are stuck on the plane (an enclosed space) for so long. The fear of flying is learned through this bad experience, as the association between the plane and the small space is built up. This becomes a phobia when it prevents someone from flying when they need or want to. During the treatment, a hierarchy of fears is established, and then the client works with the therapist working through the hierarchy, trying to overcome the fear in small steps at the client’s own pace. An important part of the treatment is learning the relaxation techniques, as the individual needs to be able to relax at each stage to overcome the fear. Gradually they work toward to goal, until reaching the top of the hierarchy, where the phobia is said to be cured.
Evaluation of systematic desensitisation & phobias
- There has been much research to show the treatment to be effective for treating phobias, including fear of flying by Capafons et al. (1998), and also with severe technophobes by Brosnan and Thorpe (2006) whose students in a crash ICT course were cured of their fear of technology
- The therapy is much more ethical than its alternatives, such as aversion therapy or flooding, which both subject the individual to harm and stress (also more ethical because these programmes are much more flexible and the client has the control over the stages that are set and the speed they work at)
Problems with systematic desensitisation & phobias
- Whilst the therapy proves useful for those who are able to relax, it is not the most convenient contribution, as it can only help those who are able to learn the relaxation techniques and implement them during times of stress (i.e. when confronting fears)
- Similarly, this means systematic desensitisation is not appropriate for treating psychoses for example
Token economy programmes to aid social control
Token economy programmes have been introduced to schools, prisons and mental health institutions to help shape behaviours. This is achieved by rewarding target behaviours, so that individuals are encouraged to repeat them. Likewise, undesirable behaviours are ignored, and sometimes even punished. Such a programme is based on the principles of operant conditioning, whereby behaviours are learned through reinforcement (the rewards, in this case). Demonstrating the required behaviours earns participants tokens, which at regular intervals can be traded for rewards the individuals really desire – this encourages them to try and earn the tokens. Important factors to consider when setting up a token economy programme include making sure that all staff understand the programme and what behaviours earn tokens, when the tokens can be exchanged, and what they can be exchanged for (it is crucial that this is something they really desire, or else there is no motivation and the programme will not be successful).
- Operant conditioning comes from a heavily evidence-based theory, which looks at the behaviour of many types of animal, and it seems operant conditioning can shape the behaviour of animals universally, such as in Skinner (1935) and Thorndike (1911), which are scientific and reliable, and so the theory behind TEPs rests on reliable support
- Staff members in the school, prison or institution are trained so that specialists are not required, so lower time investment and training costs
...unfortunately, shaped behaviour does not always generalised to outside of the setting of the programme, so the usefulness of the contribution is questionable – either simply due to the change in environment, or because there is a lack of motivation (since the rewards stop being given), in which case the programme wastes time and money shaping these individuals