Operant conditioning and stress
Obviously, some fears have payoffs, i.e. immediate positive reinforcement. Fears of the dark get attention from parents at bedtime or some one to hold our hand walking in the dark. A fear of dealing with a banker or other authority may get someone else to intervene for you. Fears may get sympathy. (Of course, many fears are fun, e.g. hide-and-seek, the roller-coaster, the spook-house, the horror movie, etc.)
More often negative reinforcement is involved in fear development (see chapter 4). Fears are self-developing if you run away from and/or avoid the frightening situation. Let's take a fear of elevators as an example. Suppose you have an important appointment on the 69th floor. But you fear heights, especially in elevators. So, you get more and more anxious as you approach the building. Walking towards the elevator, you think of the height, the long fall and the terrible accident if the elevator fell, and you imagine what it would be like if there were a fire at the same time... Your mind goes crazy. You are so sweaty and scared you can hardly push the "up" button. Then, before the elevator opens, you say to yourself, "I'm not going through this kind of hell; forget this." You may not even notice it, but as you walk away from the elevator, you feel a great relief, enormous stress has been taken away. This relief is negative reinforcement. Of what? Of what you were just doing! Being terrified of elevators and running away. So, you will be even more afraid of elevators in the future.
The possibility that running away from a fear strengthens it has important implications to all of us (beyond the old rule about climbing back on a horse as soon as possible after being thrown). Every time in a lecture you are unclear about something but decide not to ask about it in class, are you learning to be afraid of asking questions? Every time you want to talk to someone or go to a party but decide it would be more comfortable not to do it, are you increasing your shyness or your anxiety at the next party? This theory doesn't explain the origin of an irrational fear, only the growth. Later in this chapter we will see that it is usually important to expose yourself to a fear, not avoid it. Still, there is much more to understand about the care and keeping of fears.
Cognitive theories: Social learning, modeling, irrational ideas, false conclusions, fantasies, perception-attribution, coping skills, and humanistic views
Humans have always had to cope with fears and self-doubts. William James, 90 years ago, emphasized the importance of the sense of self--the "me" as I see me in terms of "Who am I?", "What do I do?" and "What do I feel?" Likewise, more recently Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and other humanists have attributed a central role to the self-concept, which is another aspect of the cognitive dimension. We want to feel good about ourselves which usually involves being accepted by others. We strive to express our true selves--to actualize our best selves. According to self theory, stress in part comes from conflicts (1) between our actual self and our ideal self, (2) between conscious and unconscious perceptions or needs, and (3) between our view of reality and incoming evidence about reality. Epstein (1982) adds two more stress-producing conflicts: (4) between differing beliefs or values we hold and (5) between our belief of what is and what should be. So, values and doing or being right affect our stress level.
We all strive to make sense of our existence. Since we can influence our future, we feel some responsibility for our lives. According to the Existentialist anxiety comes from the threat of nonbeing--death and from the dread of having to change (thus, a part of you dies) to become something different. Fears are attacks from the outside, whereas anxiety reflects an internal threat to our very essence as a person. Anything that questions our values, anything that alienates us from others or from nature, anything that challenges our ideas about the meaning of life causes anxiety. According to this theory, anxiety is not learned, we are born with it, it is the nature of humans. Serious anxiety reduces our ability to guide our lives and we end up feeling life is meaningless; that is called existential anxiety.
For decades, the Adlerians have contended that over-demanding parents produce anxious, insecure children, perhaps because the children never succeed in becoming what they "should be" in the eyes of the parent. Many years ago, a study showed that the closer a boy's self-concept was to his mother's ideal, the less anxious he was (Stewart, 1958). Very recently, addiction counselors have contended that addictions of all kinds are a way of diverting our attention away from a deeper concern, usually self-doubts and low self-esteem. If a person sees him/herself as defective, insecure, "nervous" or fragile, it seems likely that they are going to experience more stress and respond less effectively than a secure person. See chapter 14 for ways to change your self-concept and expectations of yourself.
Eighty years ago, Morton Prince suggested that a phobic person was afraid of having a panic reaction, rather than being fearful of the situation, such as heights, trains, or open spaces. In short, our expectations produced our fears.
Our greatest fear is fear itself.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt
Fear brings more pain than the pain it fears.
Several more recent theorists (Bandura, 1977; Ellis and Harper, 1975) believe we can think or imagine ourselves into almost any emotional state. They say our thinking--our cognition--produces our feelings, not classical conditioning. The focus in this section will be on our inner experience--our thoughts--interacting with the external world to generate anxiety or calm.
Past experience determines our view and evaluation of events, others, and our selves, including our beliefs about our ability to handle certain situations. Our beliefs and interpretations of the frightening situation determine our actions and feelings to it. But the process is complex. For instance, cognitive or social learning theorists believe there are several steps involved: first we must perceive the situation including our gut responses (our perception may be realistic or distorted), second we evaluate the situation (as important or minor; awful or good), third we assess our ability to handle the situation, and finally we decide what to do and respond with feelings and actions. Let's study this process in more detail to see how it results in fear.
The cognitive theory is clearly a very different notion from stress based on an inborn impulse, an innate need, an automatic reaction, or conditioning (like Little Albert). This theory is also different from Freud's unconscious processes, although some of the cognitive processes may be semiconscious. Cognitive theory returns the mind to a central role in psychology; it contends that our conscious cognitions (thinking) largely determine what we do and feel. Our minds work in wondrous ways and may be rational (accurate) or irrational (wrong), as we will now see from many examples.
How thinking can produce stress and fears in several ways
Within current psychology theory, cognitive explanations of stress are fairly new, at most 20 to 25 years old. So, the theories are not well integrated and organized, as yet. I will start with a brief, crude overview of how we think our way into being upset (when there is little rational reason for the fear). Then I will give you some more detailed explanations and examples of specific kinds of thinking that produces or reduces stress. Finally, near the end of the chapter we will summarize the methods used to correct the thinking that causes irrational distress.
This is an overview. More-intense-than-necessary fears, worries, self-doubts, anxiety, etc. may be caused
- by merely observing someone else--a model--who has excessive fear or nervousness, and learning to respond the same way (see discuss of modeling in chapter 4),
- by learning to distort incoming perceptions so that the situation is made to look worse than it is by these faulty perceptions, e.g. blushing may interpreted as making a fool out of yourself or speaking too softly to be heard may cause the listener to frown which is then interpreted as disapproval,
- by applying certain unreasonable personal beliefs or expectations to the perceived situation so that disappointments, anger, and/or a sense of inadequacy are immediately created by these irrational thoughts, e.g. thinking that others will think you are unattractive or believing that brief pauses in your speech will bore the listener,
- by acting on a variety of faulty conclusions an excessively stressful situation may have long-range consequences, e.g. by falsely believing we are boring or can't answer the other person's questions, we abruptly terminate the interaction or by having fantasies of some horrible outcome which literally scares us "out of our wits," we do poorly and the situation gets out of our control or by self-critically using this stressful incident and failure experience to further lower our self-concept, a serious self-esteem problem develops, etc., etc. There are an infinite number of false beliefs; every human has some, many have many.
These are some of the basic ideas of cognitive theory. There are many different kinds of thoughts that cause stress and fears. Cognitive processes have become the main focus of psychological treatment in the last 15 years or so.
Observational learning and cognition
In chapter 4, we saw that one could learn to be aggressive from watching a model. In a similar way, we can learn fears too (Bandura & Rosenthal, 1966) from watching a fearful person. If a parent has an obvious fear, say fear of flying or of storms or of dealing with authorities, his/her children are likely to assume there are great risks involved and be afraid of these things also. I once saw a client who's entire family had a fear of heights, especially docks over water. They passed it on, via modeling, from generation to generation.
Cognitive theory says both reasonable and unreasonable fears (phobias) are based on thoughts. Of course, it is logical thought that enables us to distinguish between rational fears and irrational fears, but for the frightened person this differentiation is difficult. Yet, our survival depends on cognition--recognizing real dangers, like driving while drinking or smoking while lying in bed or going into business with a dishonest partner. But, why do so many of us learn to greatly fear less dangerous situations, such as asking an attractive person for a date. Could it be a crushing blow to our ego even if the person who turns us down hardly knows us? (No, if we are secure; yes, if we are overly self-critical.) Somehow the ordinarily rational cognitive processes run amuck and exaggerate the dangers, as when beginning spelunkers think the cave will crash down on them or speakers fear the audience will think they are dumb or people avoid revealing their personal opinions and intimate feelings. Let's see how this might happen.
Most phobias are groundless and excessive, such as a fears of harmless bugs, dirt, worms, meeting people, speaking to a large group, and heights. Hauck (1975) suggested that these harmless situations are associated with fantasies of horrible consequences (like the fear of elevators). Thus, our own scary ideas become the "pain" paired with the situation to produce a fear reaction. For example, the shy person thinks about meeting someone and then imagines not knowing what to say and becoming terribly embarrassed. And, thus, he/she becomes even more shy. Likewise, most of us have at least a mild fear of the dark. Relatively few people have been attacked in the dark, no one by ghosts or monsters. Yet, at age 3 or 4 (as soon as our imagination develops enough) we begin fantasizing scary creatures lurking in the dark. Our own fantasies create our fear of the dark.
We can easily forgive the child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy is when adults are afraid of the light.
Of course just saying "fears come from irrational thinking" is not a very complete explanation of behavior. The question is: "why and how do we learn to think irrationally?" Bandura (1977) says false beliefs come (a) from faulty perception (like believing your black neighbors are more violent than your white ones because TV News picture more blacks as criminal suspects) and (b) from faulty conclusions based on insufficient evidence (like believing that this airplane you are boarding is likely to crash because you have seen some terrible crashes on TV lately). But why the faulty perceptions and conclusions? There are lots of ways for our thinking to become irrational, so we will discuss this in some detail. Also, in chapter 6 we will learn more about how depression and low self-esteem seems to be produced by negative self-evaluative thoughts; in chapter 7 we will see how anger may be produced by negative thoughts about others, etc. (But which comes first, the idea or the emotion? Cognitive theory says the idea, but it is hard to believe that emotions have no role to play in producing some of the irrational thinking in the first place, right?)