Many people have irrational phobias. Anyone who has seen daytime talk shows is sure to have seen at least one episode where a guest is bombarded with their phobia of things like balloons, dolphins, and even cotton balls.
It is hard for many people to understand how these odd phobias exist and why they stick around for the entire lives of those inflicted with this fright. In order to understand why these phobias occur and how they continue to afflict people, we must examine the Two-Process Theory.
The first part of the Two-Process Theory is classical conditioning. Like in the Little Albert study, people may become frightened of an object that they usually would not be afraid of after some event that was cause for alarm. In Little Albert's case, he was playing with fluffy white animals only to have a large noise alarm and startle him. This caused Albert to be afraid of fluffy white animals and even inanimate objects resembling them. Albert was classically conditioned to be afraid of these objects.
The second part in the Two-Process Theory is operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, reinforcers increase the chances of an action to be repeated. If a person is afraid of black cats, when they see a black cat on one side of a road, they may cross the road to be farther away from it. This is a negative reinforcer for the person, as they have reduced their anxiety by removing something (their proximity to the cat) in their situation. This negative reinforcer makes it more likely that they will repeat this process in the future, and is only reinforcing their fear.
In the following video, we can see that even after years and years of fear, operant conditioning can be used to aid phobia reduction. With each step closer to the puppy, the man in the video has increased anxiety and fear, which would usually make him move away from the animal, but this time he has someone giving him reinforcement by means of positive verbal reinforcement. Another positive reinforcement is the puppy not actually attacking and causing harm to the man as he expected it would.
In the end, this is what we need to remember about the Two-process Theory: Phobias are gained through classical conditioning, and phobias are maintained through operant conditioning and reinforcement.