This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 13 table of contents.


The opposite of desensitization is sensitization, which is training someone to react more to a stimulus. Where desensitization is used to eliminate fears and anxieties, sensitization is used to establish some normal or desired behavior through classical conditioning.

What is sensitization, as opposed to desensitization?

Mowrer's bedwetting treatment

One of the first successful attempts to apply conditioning techniques to behavioral problems was a form of sensitization: the bedwetting therapy devised by O. Hobart Mowrer in the 1930s. He attempted to combat bedwetting or enuresis (en-ur-EE-sis) by providing children with a bed pad sensitive to moisture. When the child urinated, a loud bell or buzzer was set off. This device became a commercial success and helped many children stop wetting their beds. The device does not always work—its success rate is said to be about 50% with parents serving as therapists—but that is enough to make it a steady seller through the years.

Why does this work? We can analyze it as a process of classical conditioning.

What is a classical conditioning analysis of the bedwetting therapy devised by Mowrer?

A cue (full bladder) is followed by a UCS (loud noise) and UCR (awakening).


The CS (full bladder) provokes a CR (awakening).

Sensitization in marital therapy

Another common application of sensitization therapy is in marriage counseling. for treating lack of desire. Sexual arousal is a biological response, instinctive and reflex-oriented, so it is a perfect candidate for classical conditioning. Research shows that this is true; sex hormones respond strongly to classical conditioning. In some marriages, the fun has gone out of sexual activity. The old cues are no longer leading to a rush of enjoyable hormones. This situation can be changed by deliberately putting significant stimuli before enjoyable sexual experiences.

How is sensitization used to rekindle romance in a marriage?

Sex therapists know that relationship problems are usually at the root of sexual problems. Often they begin by having a couple abstain from sex and get to know each other again, while working on improved communication and problem-solving in counseling.

The next step is to encourage physical contact, still of the non-sexual variety. Often massage is used as a way of expressing tenderness. Then the couple may be encouraged to start "dating" again. This involves planning a romantic evening together ahead of time, setting the mood properly in whatever way a couple prefers. This generates cues or signals which will come to be associated with sexual response.

If one thing leads to another, and the outcome is good, then a positive type of classical conditioning is established. The romantic cues (a romantic dinner, a massage, favorite music, whatever) start to generate a biological warm-up effect. The body quickly learns, on unconscious as well as conscious levels, which cues predict a powerful, positive emotional experience, and the romance in a marriage is rekindled.

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey