The Two-factor Theory According To Mowrer: This Is How Our Fears Work

Phobias, anxiety, and crippling agony … the mechanisms of fear aren’t as mysterious as you might think. Find out more about the topic below!
Mowrer's two-factor theory: This is how our fears work

Despite the fact that Mowrer’s two-factor theory was put forward as early as 1939, it remains one of the most interesting models for two reasons. First, it allows us to understand fear mechanisms and the origins of anxiety disorders and phobias. Second, it is a valuable starting point for dealing with many forms of fear.

To speak of fear is to refer to fear and agony. No dimension is as complex as fear itself. So much so that the poet Horacio said that whoever lives in fear will never be free. Hardly any argument is as true as this, but nothing is as typical for humans as clinging to worries and fears.

Ultimately, this also makes sense, since they are part of human nature and serve as a survival mechanism. Still, they can develop into a pathological condition. Panic disorders, compulsions, or phobias determine the daily lives of many people and prevent them from leading a normal life.

These states are presumptuous, exhausting, and difficult to explain to someone who has not experienced them. Understanding the basic mechanisms of fear can help us expose our worst enemy. Let’s delve deeper into this topic below.

Mowrer’s two-factor theory

The two-factor theory was formulated by Orval Hobart Mowrer in 1939. This American psychologist and psychology professor who worked at the University of Illinois is best known for his research on behavior therapy. Among other things, he was interested in finding out where phobias come from and why they are so difficult to overcome.

For example, it is pretty pointless to explain to someone who is afraid of airplanes that the chance of dying crossing a traffic light is higher than a plane crash. The mind clings to certain ideas and holds them for a long period of time until they completely change our behavior. Dr. Mowrer was a pioneer in this field. In fact, he has elucidated the mechanisms behind many fear processes.

To speak of fear is to refer to fear and agony

According to Mowrer’s two-factor theory, fears, phobias and anxiety disorders originate in two phases:

  • Imagine someone who needs to be in control of every aspect of their life, someone who is compulsive and very demanding. All of a sudden, this person gets on a plane for the first time and realizes that they are out of control of this situation.
  • She feels trapped and tied up, high off the floor, which causes her to have a panic attack. As a result, that person will then no longer be able to board a plane again.
  • And not only that, because her fear is only greater now. She is afraid of going on vacation or going on business trips. Being forced to get on a plane again only adds to her fear.

We can see two dimensions from this that define Mowrer’s two-factor theory. We will explain these in more detail below.

Phase 1. Classical conditioning

Dr. Orval Hobart Mowrer focused his research on behaviorism. Because of this, he found that the first process that mediates the appearance of phobias and many anxiety disorders is classical conditioning.

  • The individual transforms a neutral and harmless stimulus (an airplane, a spider, an incident at work, a crowded supermarket, etc.) into a painful or traumatic stimulus.
  • For example: “Since I had a bad experience with my colleagues, I have found it very difficult to get up, get ready and go to work. This place has become a nightmare for me. “
  • As you can see, during this phase the person experiences something seemingly normal in an uncomfortable way.

Phase 2. Instrumental conditioning

After suffering the effects of classical conditioning (a particular stimulus has a painful connotation), simply avoiding this situation would be enough to return to normal. However, when faced with phobias and fears, the brain works differently.

And this is where the second phase, instrumental conditioning, comes into play.

Let’s continue with the example in the workplace. If the person is being bullied by their co-workers , simply quitting the job would be more than enough to end the suffering, right?

  • Not really, because that’s not always the case. In fact, the situation can be much more complex. For example, every workplace can trigger the memory of this past experience.
  • “When I remember everything that happened, it is impossible for me to go back to work. My mind links every job to what I’ve been through in the past. “
  • However, this behavior only increases the fear. There is a frightening stimulus that they avoid, but they also avoid anything that reminds them of that original stimulus. As a result, the fear increases.

Therefore, the person affected not only avoids the original aversive stimulus, but also everything that comes close to it.

Mowrer's two-factor theory shows the irrational basis that many fears have

How can Mowrer’s two-factor theory help us?

Mowrer’s two-factor theory shows the irrational basis that many fears have and how they prevent a person from leading a normal life. First, it’s okay to run from what hurts, from what behaves as a real threat. However, many of our phobias and fears are not logical or do not guarantee our survival. On the contrary, some fears only hinder our growth.

Exposure techniques are very suitable for dealing with these psychological realities. Facing this terrifying phobic stimulus and rationalizing the fear is always a good step. Brief strategic therapy is also a good resource for uncovering anything that is limiting you and making you sink into your fears.

The fight against your fears is your responsibility. So make use of the tools that are available to you.

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