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Contemporary Views of Behavioral Learning Theory

Matthew D. Jacofsky, Psy.D., Melanie T. Santos, Psy.D., Sony Khemlani-Patel, Ph.D. & Fugen Neziroglu, Ph.D. of the Bio Behavioral Institute, edited by C.E. Zupanick, Psy.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

There remains quite a bit of controversy, among researchers and clinicians alike, regarding the role of classical conditioning in the development of anxiety disorders. First, it is not always possible to identify the initial classical conditioning life event that led to the development of an anxiety disorder. Second, there is a great deal of evidence in the literature to suggest a multitude of factors combine to produce an anxiety disorder. As we've discussed this includes genetics and disposition; psychological vulnerabilities; and social learning. While the precise role of classical conditioning is still uncertain, there is sufficient evidence to support the reinforcing nature of avoidance learning, according to the principles of operant conditioning.

Not withstanding these limitations, these two theoretical models directly gave rise to numerous effective behavioral therapies. Behavioral techniques are widely used for a plethora of problems. This includes drug/alcohol addiction; smoking cessation; improving social skills; and helping children with Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, to name but a few. In the next section, we discuss the application of behavioral theory as it relates to the treatment of anxiety disorders.