Systematic Desensitization

  • Robert B. Burns


Systematic desensitization can be viewed as a ‘deconditioning’, or a ‘counter-conditioning’, process. This procedure is very effective in eliminating fears or phobias. The idea is to weaken a maladaptive response by strengthening an incompatible or antagonistic response. For example, relaxation is antagonistic to anxiety; it is difficult to be both relaxed and anxious at the same time. Wolpe (1958), who developed this technique, called this process reciprocal inhibition. Emotional reactions may be classically conditioned. If we consistently experience pleasure in someone’s company, then the mere mention of the person’s name will set off pleasant feelings. In the same way, fear, anxiety and guilt may also be classically conditioned to stimuli and situations. Two important studies preceded Wolpe’s work and provided evidence that phobias are learned and can be removed using learning theory procedures. The first is the case of Albert reported by Watson and Rayner (1920). They provided a classical demonstration of the development of a phobia in a young child. Having first ascertained that it was a neutral object, they presented an 11 month-old boy, Albert, with a white rat to play with. Whenever he reached for the animal the experimenters made a loud noise behind the boy. After only five trials Albert began showing signs of fear in the presence of the white rat.


Systematic Desensitization Interpersonal Situation Assertive Training Neurotic Disorder Neurotic Patient 
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Further reading

  1. Wolpe, J. (1958). Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition. (Stanford: Stanford University Press)Google Scholar
  2. Wolpe, J. and Lazarus, A. (1966). Behaviour Therapy Techniques. (Oxford: Pergamon)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© R. B. Burns 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert B. Burns
    • 1
  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of BradfordUK

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