Mowrer’s two-factor theory: what is it and how it explains phobias

We are all afraid of something. This fear is usually an adaptive emotion because it allows us to adjust our behavior in order to survive. However, fears or panic reactions can sometimes occur on items that may not present a real danger.

When we talk about these fears or the existence of anxiety, we often ask ourselves: why do they appear? How do they appear? Why do they stay in time?

While there are many hypotheses in this regard, one of the best known and above all linked to the answer to the second of the questions is Mowrer’s bifactor theory. And it is this theory that we will be talking about throughout this article.

    Mowrer’s bifactor theory

    Orval Hobart Mowrer’s bifactor theory is an explanatory model that the author first proposed in 1939 and which proceeds and attempts to provide an explanatory framework regarding why a phobic stimulus that causes us fear or anxiety continues to occur to us over time although the association between this and the unconditional stimulus that caused us to generate fear has been extinguished.

    This theory therefore starts from the behaviorist paradigm and the theories of learning to try to explain why they are acquired and especially why fears and phobias are maintained, in particular when we avoid situations or stimuli that cause us anxiety (This should in principle gradually eliminate the association between stimulus and discomfort).

    In this sense, the author indicates that phobias and fears appear and persist through a conditioning process that takes place in two phases, One in which the initial fear or panic appears and a second in which the behavioral response to it in the form of avoidance generates that the fear is reinforced, to avoid it is not aversive but with what it has been associated .

    The two factors or phases

    As we have just mentioned, Mowrer states in his two-factor theory that phobias and their maintenance are due to the occurrence of two types of conditioning, which follow one another and help explain why phobias and fears persist and sometimes even increase over time. These two phases would be as follows.

    classic packaging

    First, the so-called classical conditioning process occurs: a normally neutral stimulus is associated with a stimulus that generates feelings of pain or suffering (unconditioned stimulus), and by this association ends up acquiring its own characteristics. conditioned), with which it ends up emitting the same response that would be given in the presence of the original aversive stimulus (A conditioned response is then given).

    For example, the appearance of white light (in principle, a neutral stimulus) in a room may be associated with an electric shock (unconditioned aversive stimulus) if they are presented together repeatedly.

    This will cause the person, who would initially run away from the discharge (unconditional response) but not the light, to eventually run away from the white light, connecting it with pain (conditioned response). In fact, technically it could cause a phobia of white light, which would cause us to take action. flee or avoid its occurrence or the situations in which it may appear.

      instrumental conditioning

      In the previous step, we saw how a fear or phobia of an initially neutral stimulus, white light, was formed. But in principle this panic should subside over time if it is repeatedly seen that the light is not accompanied by electric shocks. How to explain that fear persists for years?

      The answer offered by Mowrer’s bifactorial theory to this maintenance of phobias and anxieties is that it is due to the emergence of instrumental conditioning, in this case the negative response and reinforcement generated by doing so. And it is that what when white light appears we avoid it or directly prevent ourselves from being exposed to situations in which this light can appear, we avoid exposing ourselves to the conditioned stimulus.

      This may initially seem like an advantage to us, so it reinforces our behavior of avoiding situations where what we fear may arise. however, fear cannot be extinguished since what we are basically doing is avoiding the conditioned elementWhat we have linked to discomfort, not the discomfort itself. What is avoided is not the aversion, but the stimulus that warns that it may be near.

      In this way, we do not expose ourselves to the phobic stimulus without it being linked to the original aversive stimulus, so we do not lose the association made and the fear and anxiety it generates (in the case of l example, we would learn to avoid white light, but since we do not expose ourselves to the experience of white light, we cannot verify if a discharge appears later, which basically causes fear to occur. light persists).

      Situations and disorders in which it is applied

      Mowrer’s bifactor theory offers an explanatory model which, although not without criticism, has often been used as one of the main hypotheses to explain why a fear or anxiety causes us to avoid a stimulus, having associated it with some sort aversive stimulation, it does not go away even if it is not the stimulation that generates the discomfort or anxiety. In this sense, Mowrer’s bifactor theory may explain some well-known disorders, including the following.

      1. Phobias

      One of the main disorders for which the bifactorial theory offers a plausible explanation is the set of phobic disorders. In this sense, one can include both stimulus-specific or situation-specific phobias as well as more general phobias such as social phobia or even agoraphobia.

      Under this paradigm phobias would appear first when the feared stimulus is associated with a sensation or experience of pain, Discomfort or inability to last later in time because on an unconscious level they are trying to avoid future or possible similar situations.

      This means that over time the fear not only persists but often even increases, generating anticipation (which in turn generates anxiety) without dealing with the situation itself.

        2. Panic disorder and other anxiety disorders

        Panic disorder is characterized by the recurrent occurrence of panic or anxiety attacks, in which a number of symptoms appear such as tachycardia, hyperventilation and suffocation, sweating, tremors, Feeling of depersonalization, feeling like heart attack, losing control of own body or even dying.

        This very aversive experience for those who suffer from it ends up generating anticipatory anxiety, so that the subject suffers from anxiety. faced with the idea of ​​having another seizure or he may even change his usual behavior to avoid them.

        In this sense, Mowrer’s bifactor theory would also explain why the level of fear or discomfort may not decrease or even increase in the face of the avoidance that is done in order not to experience it.

        3. Obsessive-compulsive disorder and other obsessive-compulsive disorders

        OCD and other similar disorders can also explain why discomfort persists or even increases over time. In OCD, people who suffer from it experience it thoughts that live intrusive and unacceptable, which generate great anxiety in them and that they try to block actively and persistently.

        This anxiety causes them great suffering, and they can often end up generating some sort of mental or physical ritual that temporarily relieves it (although the subject himself may not find meaning or relation to the obsessive thoughts in his or her. production).

        This teaches operative conditioning that the compulsion turns into a means of reducing the anxiety caused by the obsessions.

        however, this temporary relief is detrimental, Since in the background we avoid what generates fear, which makes it remain latent. So, whenever the thought arises, the ritual will be compulsively necessary and it is even possible that over time it will become more frequent.

        4. Stereotypes and prejudices

        While in this case we are not treating a disorder properly, the truth is that Mowrer’s bifactor theory also has applicability in providing an explanatory framework for why certain prejudices and negative stereotypes can remain active.

        And while many factors are involved, in some cases stereotypes and prejudices arise from conditioned fear (either from personal experience or, more commonly, from cultural transmission or vicarious learning) who leads to avoiding individuals or subjects with certain characteristics (Make avoidance a behavior or response conditioned by the instrument).

        Also this avoidance causes that the fear or the rejection can last in time, since the subject does not get to extinguish this fear while avoiding a real damage but a fear of undergoing damage on the part of these subjects.

        In this sense, we can speak of stereotypes of gender, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or even political ideology.

        Bibliographical references:

        • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.
        • Belloch, Sandín and Ramos (2008). Manual of psychopathology. McGraw-Hill. Madrid.
        • Froján, MX, de Prado, MN and de Pascual, R. (2017). Techniques and cognitive language: back to behavioral origins. Psychotema, 29 (3): 352-357.
        • Mowrer, OH (1939). Analysis of anxiety and its role as a reinforcing agent in the response to stimulus. Psychological Review, 46 (6): 553-565.
        • Mowrer, OH (1954). The psychologist looks at the tongue. American Psychologist, 9 (11): 660-694.
        • Sants, JL; Garcia, LI; Calderon, MA; Sanz, LJ; of rivers, P .; Left, S .; Román, P .; Hernangómez, L .; Navas, E .; Lladre, A and Álvarez-Cienfuegos, L. (2012). Clinical Psychology. CEDE PIR preparation manual, 02. CEDE. Madrid.

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