This post is also available in Dutch.
Before I explain how to get rid of your fear, it is important to understand how a fear is learned. It all begins with the principle discovered by Ivan Pavlov at the start of the 20th century: classic conditioning.
In his experiments, Pavlov made use of the fact that a dog automatically drools when it sees food. He discovered that if he simultaneously presented a neutral stimulus (a whistle) with food, after a while, the dog would drool if Pavlov only blew the whistle. The automatic response to food thus became associated (conditioned) to the initially neutral whistle.
Later on, it became evident from work, such as Watson and Raynor’s Little Albert experiment, that this principle is also present in humans and can be used to learn a fear.
Little Albert was a baby that had a strong fear response to loud sounds. Watson and Raynor wanted to know if this fear response could be associated with something Albert initially did not fear, namely a white rat.
Every time Albert touched the white rat, they would bang a hammer on a steel pipe. After a few repetitions, Little Albert began to cry when he merely saw the white rat. This means that they taught Albert to fear white rats by associating the rat with a loud noise. To this day, this is the standard model of how we all learn to fear something.
This is all very interesting, but now we want to get rid of this fear: How do you learn that something is not as scary as it feels?
The idea behind this is actually quite simple and is called ‘extinction’. During an extinction procedure, the object that is feared is presented multiple times without being followed by a negative consequence. In Little Albert’s case, you would present the white rat without banging on a steel pipe.
By seeing this feared object without something negative happening, Little Albert would learn that there is nothing to fear: the fear would die out. Extinction is, in fact, the ultimate goal of exposure-based therapies in clinical settings.
Do you dare?
Though extinction works well in principle, in practice it is not that easy. You need to face your fears every single exposure; not a particularly pleasant experience.
Moreover, extinction does not always work in the long run. Often, the fear returns spontaneously after a while, as if the association is suddenly reactivated. This is an important cause of relapses during clinical treatment of anxiety disorders.
A possible way to limit the chance of a relapse is by completely reversing the association with the feared object by making it positive: we call this counter-conditioning. You not only present the feared object (the rat or, in my case, the moth) but also reward yourself when doing this (for instance with a cookie). This way, the primal response to the object is also changed and the fear is more easily supressed.
So, do you have a fear that you want to get rid of? Definitely try not to avoid it. The more you expose yourself to it, the faster you can unlearn the fear response. And if you reward yourself when doing so, you limit the chances of the fear ever returning. However, in my case, this could lead to me drooling when I encounter a moth at my house….
Original language: Dutch