Eysenck’s Incubation Theory: How Do You Get Phobias?

This theory proposed by Hans Eysenck provides an explanation about the causes of phobias.

Eysenck's theory of incubation

We have all experienced that feeling of anguish at times, caused by the presence of a real or imaginary danger. It’s about fear.

But … what happens when this fear becomes pathological? So 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 fear or anxiety, practically immediate and invariable regarding a specific and objectively harmless object or situation, which is avoided or endured at the cost of intense discomfort, fear or anxiety.

A high percentage of the general population suffers from some type of phobia. Within them, there are various types (social phobia, separation anxiety, …). More specifically and according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic 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-injection-damage.
  • Situational.
  • Others.

The most common phobia in the non-clinical population is the specific phobia. In the clinical population, in contrast, 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 looks like, it is important to understand some ideas about the acquisition of phobias. Generally, phobias are acquired by direct conditioning, although they can also be acquired indirectly, that is, by vicarious and semantic conditioning (when there are information relationships between stimuli).

As we have SEEN, most phobias are acquired by direct conditioning, although there are differences regarding the type of phobia:

Agoraphobia and claustrophobia

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

Blood phobia

It is acquired primarily by vicarious conditioning. Here the transmission of information plays a very important role.

Phobia of animals

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

Eysenck’s incubation theory

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

This theory explains why extinction does not occur in phobias, as well as the process of resistance to extinction. In turn, it considers two types of conditioning:

Type A conditioning:

Motivation is manipulated externally, and the unconditioned response (IR) and the conditioned response (CR) are different. For example, in salivation conditioning, IR would be food intake, and CR would be salivation.

Type B conditioning:

Here motivation is generated by the conditioning paradigm itself, and depends less on the motivational state of the organism. CR 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 defends that exposure to the conditioned stimulus (CS) (without the presence of the unconditioned stimulus, IE) does not cause the extinction of CR. Thus, CR acts as a reinforcer due to its similarity to IR.

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

The Napalkov effect

Following Eysenck’s incubation theory, the Napalkov Effect arises. This is the experimental demonstration that there can be a paradoxical increase (incubation) of an autonomous response (for example, blood pressure) to the successive presentation of CD alone (in the extinction phase).

Alternatives to the Eysenck model

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

According to this, a mnesic representation of the CE-IE association occurs, and upon exposure of the CS the representation of the IE is activated.

Another alternative is Davey’s re-evaluation of the IS. According to this other author, anxiety is incubated if after each presentation of the CS, the subject reassesses the US and overvalues ​​it. The tendency to carry out this overvaluation will depend on:

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

Bibliographic 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, Ibero-American Psychosomatic Journal.
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