Operant Conditioning and Avoidance Learning
The principles of operant conditioning have enabled us to better understand the powerful effect of two similar coping strategies for dealing with anxiety symptoms, called avoidance and escape. For more information about coping strategies, please review this section.
As the name implies, avoidance refers to behaviors that attempt to prevent exposure to a fear-provoking stimulus, while escape means to quickly exit a fear-provoking situation. These coping strategies are considered maladaptive because they ultimately result in a decrease in functioning. Operant conditioning has enabled us to better understand the powerful impact of these two coping strategies in terms of how these coping strategies serve to maintain anxiety disorders. Perhaps more importantly, operant conditioning points toward therapeutic solutions for eliminating maladaptive behavior (see Behavioral Therapies for Anxiety Disorders section).
In 1947, O. Hobart Mowrer proposed his two-factor theory of avoidance learning to explain the development and maintenance of phobias. Mowrer's two-factor theory combined the learning principles of classical and operant conditioning. Based upon the principles of classical conditioning, it was assumed that phobias develop as a result of a paired association between a neutral stimulus and feared stimulus. But this theory alone could not explain the resultant, avoidance and escape behaviors that individuals engaged in, particularly since these behaviors often led to further distress and interference in a person's life such as: 1) the avoidance of pleasurable activities, 2) the inability to engage in daily activities and responsibilities, and 3) the inability to maintain interpersonal relationships.
So, the second stage of Mowrer's model attempted to explain why people felt so compelled to avoid anxiety-provoking stimuli; or failing that, escape from the stimuli. The answer comes from Skinner's theory of operant conditioning, and the environmental rewards produced by these coping strategies. Mowrer proposed that the avoidance of (or escape from) anxiety-provoking stimuli resulted in the removal of unpleasant emotions; thus, avoidance becomes a reward and reinforces (increases) the behavior of avoidance. For example, an individual with social anxiety will feel a significant decrease in anxiety once he/she decides to avoid attending a large social event. This avoidance results in the removal of the unpleasant anxiety symptoms thereby reinforcing avoidance behavior; thus, it becomes the person's preferred method of coping with future social events. Similarly, suppose this same person attempted to go to a party, despite his/her reservations, and experienced a panic attack while there. If this person immediately exits the party, the panic will subside, and the behavior of escape will be rewarded by the swift reduction in panic symptoms.
The therapeutic implication of operant conditioning and its relationship to avoidance learning was extremely important. It was theorized, and later proven to be correct, if these maladaptive behaviors, which served to maintain an anxiety disorder through reinforcement, were discontinued, the maladaptive behaviors would become extinct; i.e., the behavior would gradually fade away due to the lack of reward (reinforcement). And indeed, research has demonstrated this to be correct.