Seligman’s Preparation Theory: Explaining Phobias

There are many theories that attempt to explain the acquisition of phobias. Why do you think some phobias are more common than others? In this article we will know Seligman’s preparation theory, Which tries to explain this phenomenon.

The theory alludes to two main concepts, preparation (phylogenetic aspects) and predisposition (ontogenetic aspects) for the development of phobias. If you want to know why you are more afraid of heights, fire or snakes, than being afraid of doors, for example, read on!

    Seligman preparation theory: features

    Martin Seligman was the researcher who established the preparation theory. According to this theory, the organism is phylogenetically prepared (through an evolutionary process of the species) to associate or easily learn the relationship between certain stimuli (biologically primate stimulus to associate with a response), be adaptive this learning.

    Seligman’s preparation theory arises in opposition to the principle of equipotentiality, which held that all stimuli can elicit phobic responses. Thus, according to Seligman, only a few stimuli would be ready to provoke phobias. These would be dangerous stimuli, which endanger the survival of the species, like lions, snakes, now, fire, etc.

    Seligman, in a way, sees phobias as powerful adaptation tools of the species, Which increase the likelihood of survival and perpetuation of the same.

    Central concepts of the theory

    Seligman’s preparation theory consists of two fundamental concepts, which are as follows.

    1. Preparation

    It alludes to phylogenetic aspects, Specific to an evolutionary process of the species. There are three types of stimuli depending on their “degree” or level of readiness:

    1.1. prepared stimuli

    This is biologically prepared stimuli to learn as harmful (For example, associating an unpleasant taste with an upset stomach).

    1.2. Unprepared stimuli

    These are stimuli that end up being acquired with certain tests (for example in a laboratory situation; light beams associated with an aversive stimulus after several tests). They would be “neutral” stimuli, with no biological charge to acquire, in this sense.

    1.3. counter-prepared stimuli

    These are the stimuli that cannot be learned, i.e. impossible to associate with a given concept (For example, an electric shock, which is not associated with an upset stomach).

    2. Predisposition

    We speak of ontogenetic aspects, that is to say of a individual differences resulting from the development of the organism.

    The Garcia effect

    From Seligman’s preparation theory, another interesting and widely used concept emerges in learning psychology, which is related to the concept of “preparation” already mentioned: the Garcia effect.

    This effect tells us aversion to acquired taste; was discovered from the study of some rats, finding that these were associated with an unpleasant taste with an upset stomach, as they are ready to associate such a taste with disease (so it is understood , by its “direct” or “similarity” relationship between taste and belly).

    On the other hand, rats are counter-prepared to establish an association between taste and electric shocks (due to their zero “similarity” or the relationship between stimuli).

    The Garcia effect highlights or explains the easy acquisition of conditioned nausea in cancer patients; that is, these patients end up associating the taste (bad taste) of chemotherapy with subsequent vomiting and therefore end up being conditioned.

    Characteristics of phobias

    According to Seligman’s preparation theory, phobias meet 4 characteristics according to the concept of preparation:

    1. Selectivity

    Some stimuli produce fear more easily than others. This implies that phobias, as we have already discussed, are crucial for the survival of species.

    2. Easy acquisition

    One try is enough to acquire a phobia (and it is not necessarily a traumatic stimulus).

    3. Resistance to extinction

    phobias they are highly resistant to extinction (Resistant to disappearance). This is the most characteristic aspect of phobias, according to Seligman’s preparation theory.

    4. Irrationality

    Finally, there is a disproportion between the real danger of the stimulus and the anxious response it produces, that is to say phobias are irrational.

    Reformulation of the theory

    Öhman reformulated Seligman’s preparation theory, And differentiated two types of phobias, according to their evolutionary origin:

    1. Non-communicative origin

    These are phobias in height, inside, agoraphobia, etc. In other words, that is to say they have no “social” or communicative function.

    2. Communicative origin

    They would be phobias which would play a role of communication between the species; for example, animal phobias and social phobias.

    Animal phobias are said to be species specific (don’t just appear in humans) and involve theft or defense, especially in childhood. Instead, social phobias are said to be intraspecific (specific to the human species), elicit responses of domination and submission, Frequent onset in adolescence.

    Bibliographical references:

    Belloch, A .; Sandín, B. I Ramos, F. (2010). Manual of psychopathology. Volumes I and II. Madrid: McGraw-Hill. Clark, DA and Beck, AT (2012). Cognitive therapy for anxiety disorders. Madrid: Desclée de Brouwer.

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