Gavin Lyall, the great novelist, once said, “…if God had intended men to fly He’d have given us wings” (Lyall, n.d., p. 1). Lyall’s quote epitomizes the feeling that most of us experience while defying the law of gravity in an airplane. It almost seems unnatural; however, when this normal fear becomes an irrational, unfounded fear it falls into the category of aviophobia. What’s more, aviophobia can be adequately understood through the psychology perspective of behaviorism, within the context of the conditions and consequences of the behavior, and best treated through several types of behavior therapy.
The classical conditioning model of behaviorism is built upon the psychological mechanism of association (Kowalski & Westen, 2005). Classical conditioning works through conditioning trials where an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) is repeatedly paired with a neutral stimulus (NS). Once the UCS and the NS have been paired through a sufficient number of trials the unconditional response (UCR) that usually follows the UCS can be associated with the NS, thereby becoming a conditioned stimulus (CS). Now that the UCR has been linked to the CS the UCR now becomes a conditioned response (CR) and follows the CS. Through the mechanism of association, behavior can actually be manipulated and conditioned. It is through this psychological instrument that many who suffer from aviophobia begin to associate planes with death. In this scenario, the plane (UCS) is paired with visualizations of death and destruction (NS) from the news and media. Once the images of death (NS) have been paired with the planes (UCS) long enough an association is made between the two. Then, the normal responses to death (UCR) are linked to planes (CS), thereby making the normal responses to death (UCR) a conditioned response (CR). It is through this association that those who suffer from aviophobia learn to fear planes and associate them with death and destruction.
My mother has always had a fear of flying. She once lamented to me that it centered around the fact that there are no survivors on full-blown plane crashes. She went on to say that the absolute destruction of the planes that crashed, as usually portrayed on news media, brought her repeated nightmares and even daytime nightmares. It was not until after 9-11 that she developed a completely irrational fear (aviophobia) of planes though. Apparently, the fear of absolute destruction paired with absolute uncontrollability was too strong of an association. The downfall to this fear is that planes are completely out of the question. She once drove to Washington D.C. to see my aunt, which took days, instead of just flying. My mother hates to drive long-distance, but the benefits of flying did not outweigh the perceived consequences. In her mind, there is a distinction between the absolute destruction of a plane crash and the sometimes partial destruction of an automobile crash. It is this distinction which allows her to drive for days through the greater part of the nation and never think about death. It is also this distinction which causes her palms to sweat at the sight of a 747 on the tarmac.
Rachman (2004) concluded, after a series of empirical studies, that gradual re-exposure and full emersion were the most successful behavior therapies for phobias. Gradual re-exposure entails deliberately superimposing an incompatible response onto what would usually be a fear response. In the case of my mother’s aviophobia, this would include the implementation of relaxation techniques while being exposed to pictures of crashed planes. During these exercises, she would begin to associate the feelings of relaxation with the pictures of death and destruction. In this way, she will be able to eventually associate the feelings of relaxation with planes themselves. On the other hand, full immersion is quite a bit more progressive form of behavior therapy. Full immersion entails actual contact with the stimulus that now brings about the conditioned response (planes). On a practical level, my mother would be encouraged to fly as much as possible in order to rationalize her fears of planes. Once she has flown a few times she will begin to associate the positives of flying with flying itself, thereby alleviating her irrational fear. Sometimes these therapies are used in conjunction and sometimes they are more successful when used independently.
In conclusion, the behaviorist model of psychology more than accommodates a proper understanding of aviophobia and its underlying causes. Furthermore, my mother’s fear of flying is grounded in the absolute destruction and uncontrollability, portrayed by the new media, of plane crashes. Finally, the behavior therapies of gradual re-exposure and full emersion are adequate in confronting the powerful associations that underlie aviophobia.
Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2005). Psychology (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Lyall, G. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2008, from Pixelproc Web site: http://www.pixelproc.net/quotes.html
Rachman, S. J. (2004). Behavior Therapy. Learning and Memory, (2nd ed., pp. 59-61). Retrieved December 02, 2008, from Gale Powersearch database.
Prepare a 700 to 1,050-word paper in which you explain how psychological research applies to various aspects of social life. In preparation for this paper, identify a type of behavior (e.g., overeating, smoking, passive aggressiveness) that is exhibited by someone in your social life. Based on your selected type of behavior, address the following items:
- Describe your selected type of behavior and the individual who is exhibiting the behavior.
- Examine the conditions that precede your selected type of behavior.
- Examine the consequences that follow your selected type of behavior.
- Describe how psychology can be used to explain the behavior.
In addition, identify the ethical dilemmas that could arise from your observations.