Origins of dysfunctional behaviours: phobias

A ‘phobia’ is the term associated with the irrational fear of one particular trigger. There are several types of phobias outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) which all encompass the intense, irrational fear of a specific trigger (Brazier, 2017). If an individual finds their condition to be debilitating enough for them to be unable to carry out their day-to-day tasks, then it is seen as dysfunctional behaviour (Seligman, Walker, & Rosenhan, 2001).

Behavioural and cognitive models differ in the very foundations of where we believe our behaviour stems from. In cognitive psychology, the emphasis lies on the human capacity to use our mind to process and organize information, rather than relying on the thought process behind our behaviour. In contrast, Behaviourism focuses on the observable behaviour and concerns itself with the notion that our behaviour is based on a past event and consequences we have faced, allowing us to choose to behave in a way that has the best outcome (Deubel, 2003). Although both approaches have been since replaced with newer branches within psychology, they all attempt to explain the reasons why we behave the way we do (Communications, n.d.).

As is the case with many dysfunctional behaviours, it is thought that simple phobias develop during childhood. Negative experiences in childhood such as being exposed to traumatic events, or even being trapped in an elevator can induce the development of such phobias later in life (NHS website, 2018). Through the use of classical and operant conditioning, behaviourists demonstrated in the classic ‘Little Albert’ experiment, that they were able to condition a child to become fearful of objects and situations that it was not fearful of before (Cherry, 2019).

Little Albert, aged approximately 9 months, although a very healthy baby boy, behaved rather impassively and unemotionally and this became the principal reason Watson & Raynor used him as a subject in their experiment. Watson & Rayner observed Little Albert’s reactions to a series of neutral stimuli which included various animals (a white rat, a monkey) and masks and concluded that he showed no signs of fear when presented with these stimuli. Watson would then reintroduce the same stimuli, but this time they would simultaneously strike a metal pipe with a hammer, which induced fear in Little Albert (Watson & Rayner, 1920). They repeated this process several times, to condition Little Albert to feel fear and then reintroduced the animals and masks without the noise. Due to successful conditioning process, the animals and masks now became a trigger of fear for Little Albert and he cried despite the loud noise not being present (DeAngelis, 2010).

Behaviourists suggest that abnormal behaviour is learned, and therefore there is a strong possibility that it can be unlearned. This highly reductionist approach to the study of human behaviour states that all learning can be traced back to classical and operant conditioning, making this a fairly nomological way to assess human behaviour (Sammons, n.d.). Treatments within the behavioural model, use traditional learning procedures to teach new ways of digesting information and evaluating of the situation to unlearn dysfunctional behaviours such as fear (CliffsNotes, n.d.).

The cognitive model is very similar to this, although stating that the origins of abnormal behaviour stem from people making false assumptions and basing their thoughts and behaviour on those false assumptions. The cognitive model suggests that there is an activating event or objective situation which ultimately leads to a belief, a high emotional response or negative dysfunctional thinking. The consequence of this being that people think negatively about themselves and feel things such as anger, sadness and anxiety about the situation, which then affects their behaviour (Mcleod, 2019).

The treatment of this dysfunctional behaviour also involves unlearning habits and developing new thoughts and values and replacing them (Sammons, n.d.). However, the cause of the dysfunctional behaviour is based on the meanings the individual attributed to the experience, impacting the way they feel about it in the future. Because behaviourism is based on cause and effect, it is this reductionist approach that is the reason why cognitive theory rejects behaviourism (Fritscher, 2020).


Brazier, Y. (2017, December 20). Everything you need to know about phobias. Retrieved from

Cherry, K. (2019, December 7). What Was the Little Albert Experiment? Retrieved 22 February 2020, from

CliffsNotes. (n.d.). Perspectives on Abnormal Behavior. Retrieved 22 February 2020, from

Communications, W. S. D. F. S. (n.d.). Cognitive Vs Behaviorist Psychology. Retrieved 22 February 2020, from

DeAngelis, T. (2010, January 1). ‘Little Albert’ regains his identity. Retrieved from

Deubel, P. (2003). An Investigation of Behaviorist and Cognitive Approaches to Instructional Multimedia Design. /Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia/, /12/(1), 63–90. Retrieved from

Fritscher, L. (2020, January 6). Can Cognitive Theory Really Help Alleviate Your Phobias? Retrieved 22 February 2020, from

Mcleod, S. (2019, January 15). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy | CBT | Simply Psychology. Retrieved 22 February 2020, from

NHS website. (2018, October 30). Causes – Phobias. Retrieved 22 February 2020, from

Sammons, A. (n.d.). The behaviourist approach: The basics. Retrieved 22 February 2020, from

Seligman, M. E. P., Walker, E. F., & Rosenhan, D. L. (2001). /Abnormal Psychology (Fourth Edition)/ (4th ed.). New York, United States of America: W. W. Norton & Company.

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. /Journal of Experimental Psychology/, /3/(1), 1–14.