For years and years, the slightest thought of visiting the dentist has sent a feeling of uneasiness into the hearts of many. The associations of pain, discomfort, and dislike for the dentist at work have created a bad rep for the dental business ever since the days of no Novocain. What many people have yet to realize is that the dental industry has been working incredibly hard to help reduce the factors that create fear in patients by applying the concepts of conditioning.
By unraveling the Two-Process theory, we can take a closer look at why people hold such bias against dentists.
First of all, the Two-Process theory is a combination of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In this case, the classically conditioned stimulus, visiting the dentist, gets paired with the unconditioned stimulus of a bad experience, whether it be the extracting of a tooth, a root canal, or even just a story from someone a person knows who has had a bad experience. The dentist is then linked with a sense of fear because people do not want harm to come to them, especially in their mouth where there are a lot of nerve endings.
In order to reduce the unpleasant feeling, a person may avoid the dentist for as long as possible, which is a bad idea because they are Operantly negatively reinforcing the feelings. This many times only leads to more and more problems with going to the clinic, even when they are in dire need of dental attention.
I know that as a child myself, I was terrified when the dentist brought out the giant needle to numb my mouth, it seemed like it was a foot long. I was even so afraid of the dentist as a child that I had to be medical sedated for them to work on me. After that episode I was brought to a child specialist and that's where I saw the change.
Dentists and dental hygienists were actually using certain techniques to calm down children before working on them. They were conditioning the children with positive reinforcement. The more the children behaved and remained calm, the more rewards they would get for their behavior, teaching the children that going to the dentist and getting regular checkups comes with two perks: healthy teeth and the occasional toy or trinket. Some clinics also have movies that play on the ceiling to distract the children and the walls are painted with whimsical designs, all further enforcing the positive environment of a dentist's office.
If only this would work on the older generation that had to deal with the not so ideal conditions of dentists' offices before the discovery of dental anxiety was recorded. That generation has a large number of elderly folks who are afraid of the dentist because all through their lives it was a deeply rooted fact that going to the dentist involved pain, and a lot of it. Hopefully the dental profession will continue to make all levels of dental care at all ages safe and worry free by applying more concepts of psychology to the field of work.