Phobias as Prepared Learning

Thorndike was one of the few early researchers to recognize that some behaviors were natural, others were not, and therefore some were easier to learn than others. Thorndike pointed out that trial and error learning occurred fastest when animals were (1) motivated; (2) prepared to learn; (3) paying attention to the relevant cues. Thorndike called these "secondary laws of learning." They were ignored in Thorndike's day, then rediscovered about 50 years later when the concept of biologically prepared learning became popular.

In what way was Thorndike ahead of his time? How did Seligman use the "preparedness" concept?

Seligman (1971) revived Thorndike's preparedness concept to explain some strange things about phobias (powerful, irrational fears). Seligman asked, Why are some phobias so much more common and difficult to treat than others? He pointed out that the most common phobias involved spiders, snakes, and small animals such as rats. These were also the most difficult to treat. However, in our modern world, more people are hurt by hammers and electrical outlets than by spiders and snakes. Why do psychologists hear no complaints about hammer phobias, or electrical outlet phobias?

Seligman suggested that the common phobias must be biologically prepared by evolution. Fear of snakes, spiders, rodents, heights, water, enclosed spaces...all these things can save a person's life (and preserve the DNA that encourages such a fear response). By contrast, we do not fear hammers and automobiles because they were not a threat to our ancestors, so we have no built-in bias against them.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey