The Behavior Analyst

, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp 161–173 | Cite as

Theoretical Implications of the Neurotic Paradox as a Problem in Behavior Theory: An Experimental Resolution

  • Thomas G. Stampfl


Why do human phobias last for months or years when such behavior should undergo extinction? This failure of extinction or persistence of self-defeating behavior of human disorders was labeled by Mowrer as the neurotic paradox. The paradox is cited by an ever-increasing number of critics who challenge any laboratory-based learning model of human psychopathology. Laboratory research, of course, omits essential requirements in the analysis of behavior, and the principles derived from such analyses must be combined in order to explain complex human behavaior. Validation for a behavioral model can thus be achieved if (a) basic principles inferred from observation of humans treated with a laboratory-derived extinction procedure (e.g., implosive therapy) are combined with (b) principles examined in laboratory research that are combined to generate unique predictions that correspond to known features of human phobic behavior. The latter evidence is briefly reviewed in research demonstrating sustained responding over one thousand consecutive active avoidance responses with complete avoidance of the “phobic” CS for an initial single shock trial. Differential reinforcement for responses to early sequential stimuli depends on minimal work requirement, and reinforcement by timeout from avoidance. This combination of factors effectively precludes extinction to main conditioned aversive stimuli for nonhumans, as it does for human phobias. Support for a laboratory model of human phobia is thereby attained.


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Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas G. Stampfl
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeMilwaukeeUSA

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