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Counter Conditioning: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Definition of Counter…
  • 1:08 Systematic Desensitization
  • 1:33 Examples of Systematic…
  • 3:31 Aversion Therapy
  • 3:58 Example of Aversion Therapy
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson goes over the technique known as counter conditioning, the goal of which is to get people to change their response to a given stimulus. We'll talk about some examples of this and test your knowledge with a quiz at the end.

Definition of Counter Conditioning

What are you afraid of? Maybe it's flying, or heights, or ghosts. Or, maybe it's spiders. Now, imagine that you willingly spend an hour in a room with spiders. Sounds creepy, doesn't it? Do you think after that you might react a bit more positively to spiders? That might be a bit of an extreme example, but it's getting at a major point of the psychological concept known as counter conditioning.

Counter conditioning is a technique that focuses on changing our responses to stimuli. This might mean helping us to react with less fear to a stimulus, like a spider, that stresses us out or it might mean helping us react more negatively to something we used to react favorably to, but that might not be good for us: smoking a cigarette, for example. Counter conditioning can also be used to train animals. You might be able to get your dog to stop chewing on your shoes by conditioning him to have a different response to your shoes.

So how does this work? There are two major methods of counter conditioning. Let's talk about each of them and how they attempt to change our response to a stimulus.

Systematic Desensitization

The first method of counter conditioning is called systematic desensitization. This is a technique used by psychologists to help individuals overcome fears or phobias by exposing a person to something they're afraid of. The therapist would help the patient learn coping mechanisms or relaxation techniques to deal with fear. The ultimate goal is to expose the patient to the stimulus that scares them, and let them use these new techniques.

Examples of Systematic Desensitization

A psychologist by the name of Mary Cover Jones was a pioneer in the field of conditioning. Jones conducted a famous experiment to test systematic desensitization. Let's talk about that experiment to give you an example of how systematic desensitization works.

Jones worked with a young boy who was afraid of rabbits. She set up an experiment to try and ease his fear. First, the rabbit was kept away from the boy. Then, the animal was moved closer and closer to the boy while he was allowed to eat his favorite food. Then, the boy was allowed to touch the rabbit while enjoying his favorite food. Doing something enjoyable - in this case, eating his favorite food - eased the boy's nervousness while he was doing something he did not like - touching the rabbit.

Eventually, the boy was no longer afraid or anxious around the rabbit. Jones had created a positive association! In this example, Jones was able to eliminate the child's fear of rabbits because she had conditioned a negative response (fear and anxiety) to a stimulus (the rabbit) into a positive response to that same stimulus. This is systematic desensitization.

Let's take another example. Say you're really afraid of spiders. Your approach is probably to avoid them, right? Well, avoiding spiders might temporarily reduce your anxiety, but this only lasts until the next time you find a spider in your house!

A therapist might help you by starting with something that is scary to you, but not as scary as a real live spider. You might flip through some images of spiders. Then, the therapist might tell you there is a spider in a cage in the next room. Then, the therapist might bring the spider into the room you're in. Then, she might move it closer to you.

This whole time, you'll be guided through relaxation and anxiety reducing techniques by your therapist. The goal here is to expose you more and more to the thing you're really afraid of (a spider) but help you relax as you're exposed to the stimulus. Eventually, the fear response the spider elicits in you won't be as strong.

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