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Classical conditioning was discovered and closely studied by Ivan Pavlov and further adapted by John B. Watson (Friedman & Shustack, 2012). Their findings of conditioning emotional responses provoked an awareness of deconditioning emotional responses, such as fear. When fear responses are classically conditioned, Pavlov and Watson both noticed ways in which the fear could be “extinguished.” Pavlov noted the extinction process, by which a conditioned response becomes less frequent and can lead to a change in behavior and/or personality (Friedman & Shustack). For example, a child who is afraid to attend school will benefit from going there with a trusting adult, who provides a calm setting. Soon, this child’s fear of school will become extinct, and replaced with pleasant thoughts instead. Present day researchers are referring to this practice as social buffering; where stress can be lessened when the subject is accompanied by a more familiar organism (Ishii, Kiyokawa, Takeuchi, & Mori, 2016).

Watson used a countercondition approach called, systematic desensitization (Friedman & Shustack, 2012). Systematic desensitization requires the feared stimulus to slowly be reintroduced as to dissociate the fear response. This is still used today, even with intellectually disabled patients, such as those living with autism and have increased fears and anxieties. One study illustrates how dog phobias of autistic children were eventually extinguished through slow, but steady and gentle contact with dogs (Tyner, et al., 2016). Moreover, positive reinforcement has helped nurture systematic desensitization of fear responses.

Systematic desensitization appears to have the best results in ridding fears and phobias in individuals. It is commonly used today through newer technology such as virtual reality (VR) machines (Friedman & Shustack, 2012). Besides it being cost efficient, more people are willing to “face their fears” through technology rather than the actual stimulus. Even so, other interventions such as therapy, should coincide with these approaches in order to reduce fear and anxiety. Other interventions could help a person figure out the actual causation of their fear and any other underlying behavioral patterns. This will help the person find complete relief and hopefully not substitute one stimulus for another.


Friedman, H. S., & Shustack, M. W. (2012). Personality: Classical theories and modern research (5th ed). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Ishii, A., Kiyokawa, Y., Takeuchi, Y., & Mori, Y. (2016). Social buffering ameliorates conditioned fear responses in female rats. Hormones And Behavior, 8153-58. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2016.03.003.

Tyner, S., Brewer, A., Helman, M., et al. (2016). Nice doggie! Contact desensitization plus reinforcement decreases dog phobias for children with autism. Behavioral Analysis in Practice, 9(1), 54-57. doi:10.1007/s40617-016-0113-4.

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