Eysenck’s incubation theory: how are phobias acquired?

We have all experienced this feeling of dread, caused by the presence of real or imagined danger. It’s a matter of fear.

But … what happens when this fear becomes pathological? Next, we are talking about a phobia. Eysenck’s incubation theory arises to explain the acquisition of phobias.

    What are phobias?

    A phobia is an intense and persistent, practically immediate and invariable fear or anxiety about a specific and objectively harmless object or situation, which it is avoided or endured at the expense of intense discomfort, fear or anxiety.

    A high percentage of the general population suffers from some form of phobia. Within them, there are several types (social phobia, separation anxiety, …). More precisely and according to the DSM-5 (Diagnosis and statistical manual of mental disorders), within the specific phobia, there are different specifications depending on the feared stimulus:

    • Animal.

    • Specific situation.
    • Natural environment.
    • Blood-pain injection.
    • Situational.
    • Other.

    The most common phobia in the non-clinical population is the specific phobia. In the clinical population, on the other hand, the most common phobia is panic disorder with agoraphobia. This type is the most serious and disabling of all types of phobias.

    Acquisition of phobias

    To understand what Eysenck’s incubation theory is, it is important to understand some ideas on acquiring phobias. Phobias are usually acquired by direct conditioning, although they can also be acquired indirectly, i.e. by vicarious and semantic conditioning (when information relationships are given between stimuli).

    As we have seen, most phobias are acquired through direct conditioning, although there are differences in the type of phobia:

    Agoraphobia and claustrophobia

    These two types of phobias are most often acquired by past traumatic experiences.

    Blood phobia

    It is fundamentally acquired by vicarious conditioning. The transmission of information plays a very important role here.

    Animal phobia

    These are the phobias most associated with indirect conditioning (vicarious conditioning according to the proposal of the “disease avoidance” model, according to which the sensitivity to disgust / contamination is transmitted to small animals).

    Eysenck’s incubation theory

    Eysenck’s incubation theory is considered the “third great conditioning model”. It arises in addition to the law of extinction and is a model based on classical conditioning.

    This theory explains why extinction does not occur in phobias, just like the process of resisting extinction. In turn, consider two types of conditioning:

    Type A packaging:

    Motivation is manipulated from the outside, And the unconditioned response (RI) and the conditioned response (RC) are different. For example, in conditioning salivation, RI would be food intake and RC would be salivation.

    Type B packaging:

    Here, motivation is generated by the same conditioning paradigm, and it depends less on the motivational state of the organism. RC and RI are similar. For example, in the case of aversive conditioning.

    According to this theory, anxiety is acquired and maintained by type B conditioning.

    The theory maintains that exposure to a conditioned stimulus (EC) (without the presence of an unconditioned stimulus, EI) does not cause the extinction of CR. Thus, RC acts as a reinforcer due to its resemblance to RI.

    For the phobia to be acquired, the strength of the CR must be high (intense) and the duration of exposure to the EC, short.

    The Napalkov effect

    Following Eysenck’s incubation theory the Napalkov effect is set. This is the experimental demonstration that a paradoxical increase (incubation) of an autonomic response (eg arterial pressure) to the successive presentation of EC alone (in extinction phase) can occur.

      Alternatives to the Eysenck model

      Some alternatives to Eysenck’s incubation theory have been proposed. One of them is the restoration of fear proposed by Rescorla.

      According to this, there is a memory representation of the EC-EI association, and before the EC exposure, the representation of the EI is activated.

      Another alternative is the reassessment of the IS proposed by Davey. According to this other author, anxiety is incubated if after each CE presentation the subject re-evaluates EI and overestimates it. The tendency to overestimate will depend on:

      • The predisposition to deal with the aversive aspects of an event.
      • The tendency to discriminate and overestimate the intensity of one’s own anxiety reactions.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Belloch, A .; Sandín, B. and Ramos, F. (2010). Manual of psychopathology. Volume II. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.
      • American Psychiatric Association (2013). DSM-5. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition). Washington, DC: author.
      • Tortella, M. (2014). Anxiety Disorders in DSM-5, 110. Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychiatry, Latin American Journal of Psychosomatics.

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