Phobia of Public Speaking and Cognitive Therapy

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The study of associative learning in Psychology has specialised in two sub-fields: Classical (Pavlovian) conditioning focuses on how “mental” representations of stimuli are linked whereas instrumental conditioning deals (mainly) with response-outcome associations. It is agreed though that, at the most general level, their associative structures are the same (Hall, 2002). In both procedures, changes in behaviour are considered the result of an association between two concurrent events and explained in terms of operations of a (conceptual) system that consists of nodes among which links can be formed. At the risk of over-simplification, we can identify the main trends in classical conditioning according to two dimensions, namely, the mechanisms of the learning process and the way in which the stimuli are represented by the learning system. The very idea that all stimuli present in a trial compete for associative strength is at the heart of the model. It is precisely this characterizing feature that differentiates it from earlier models such as (Hull, 1943). These 6 assumptions allow the model to explain phenomena such as blocking and conditioned inhibition, that is, phenomena that result from the interaction among different stimuli. Other assumptions of the model are path-independence (i.e., that the associative strength of a stimulus does not depend on its previous learning history), monotonicity (i.e., that learning and behaviour are one and the same thing), that acquisition and extinction are opposite processes, and that the associability of the CS is fixed.

Jane is naturally anxious person, but she shows a disproportionate and exaggerated fear to any situation that involved speaking in front of people, even if those people are just her friends. This is starting to negatively impact her life since part of her job responsibilities include conducting workshops for her colleagues. Her psychologist has suggested she has a phobia of public speaking. In this case, the US (Unconditioned stimulus) is speaking in front of people, the CS (Conditioned Stimulus) is public speaking, the UR (Unconditioned Response) is anxiety and the CR (Conditioned Response) is fear. When one analyzes Jane’s phobia to public speaking they have to understand the environment to where the individual obtained such fear and what made it happen to this individual throughout teen years to adult years. The following theories classical, operate and observational will help understand what may have resulted in Jane’s s phobia, how can the phobia be broken so that she does not have the phobia of speaking in public and observing what happens during attempts of public speaking.

Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning theory is “a process in which a stimulus that initially is neutral (i.e., that the organism initially does not respond to in any significant manner) eventually elicits a strong response” (Cervone Pervin, 2010). With this theory the phobia of Jane is not learned or conditioned but the phobia with speaking in public is automatic. In order for it to be a conditioned event when Jane stands in front of the audience that she is speaking in front of the stare that the audience, can trigger the phobia where Jane turns on the switch where she gets nervous and unable to speak a word. With the research that was conducted by Pavlov with his dog the tested the ringing of the bell where every time it was time to give the food to the dog they rang the bell. The kept doing this and soon after rang the bell without food present. This made the dog salivate even when the food was not present because the dog knew that the food would come when the bell rang. Take Jane’s phobia where every time she went in front of people to present anything his phobia was present and he kept attempting this until the mere knowledge that she will be speaking publicly she then begins to have her phobia.

Development of Simple Phobias/Specific Phobias

Specific phobias, formerly known as simple phobias, are a lasting and typically unreasonable fear that is caused by the presence or thought, or of a specific object or situation. Although much is not known about exactly causes phobias, scientists are seeing a connection between the phobias of an individual’s parents, and their own phobias (Phobias, 2014). It is reported that specific phobias, like Jane’s, start suddenly and are longer lasting than childhood phobias ('Specific Phobias', 2016).

One such factor of the etiology of phobias is a learned history. The first type of learned experience is the direct learning experience. Jane’s public speaking phobia could have developed after a traumatic experience in a feared situation ('Specific Phobias', n.d.). The second is that of observational learning experiences. There are people who may learn to fear certain objects or situations by watching others show signs of fear in the same scenario. Lastly, there is the informational learning experience. Individuals who develop phobias through this channel do so after hearing about or reading about a feared situation ('Specific Phobias', n.d.). This information is not to say that learning is the only cause for phobia development.

Operant Conditioning and Jane’s Fear of Speaking

Operant conditioning was developed by Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904– 1990). Its focus is reward and punishment. In operant conditioning, the most important aspect is the ‘reinforcer’. The reinforcer follows the response and increases the probability of the response in the future (Cervone and Pervin, 2013, p.374). One big aspect of operant conditioning is the schedule of reinforcement. Cervone and Pervin (p.376) give the example of a slot machine. A person may or may not know if money will come out, but will keep trying, because it is exciting. However, if one is used to getting the same response, one will stop trying. Using the theory of operant conditioning, there must have been a repeated negative consequence to create Jane’s unwillingness to speak publicly.

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Observational Learning and Jane’s Fear of Speaking

Observational learning was implemented by Albert Bandura. Observational learning is now known as imitation (Brown Vannest, 2013). Observational learning is learning that takes places as we live as individuals. We learn how to behave based on what we have been exposed to. Humans also learn how to behave based on the reaction we receive from others when we attempt to do something. When this is learned it effects how we as humans develop phobias about life. Jane has experienced negativity when it comes to her speaking in public, which has caused Jane to have a fear of speaking. Due to pass experience Jane has experienced negative judgment about what she needed reinforcement about so that she could have performed better and had more confidence in speaking in public. Fear is caused by having someone saying negative comments about you and embarrassment goes hand and hand (Craske Waters, 2005). There are a number of other situations that can cause for a person to have a phobia of speaking. Sometimes it can be genetic and what we witness our parents’ reactions are to certain situations.

Also anxiety can be a part of the genetic makeup. However, there are ways to help get past the issues of Jane’s fear. With confidence building she will learn to be able to speak to an audience by someone building his confidence in his speeches. Another way he could sit back and observe others who have issues with public speaking and learn from the mistakes of others and what their method of correcting what seemed to have gone wrong. We learn by imitation of who we are around in what is said, their actions, decisions, facial expressions, and one’s temperament.

Extinction is observed in both operant and classical conditioned behavior (CervonePervin, 2010). When operant behaviors that used to be enforced are no longer being enforced and producing consequences, the behavior will decrease over time (CervonePervin, 2010). Within classical conditioning, when the conditioned stimulus is presented alone and no longer precedes the unconditioned stimulus, the conditioned response will gradually decrease and hopefully completely stop (CervonePervin, 2010). In regards to the case of Jane, should the issue be operant conditioning, if she received more positive reinforcement for public speaking, she may show a decline in his self-doubt and dislike for public speaking. Receiving more positive reinforcement as opposed to positive punishment (being told he was a terrible speaker and having his flaws pointed out repeatedly) he may develop more confidence within her skills and eventually be less nervous about having to speak publicly.

Behavior Modification Plan

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive Restructuring (CR) is the focus on the speaker’s beliefs regarding his or her capability to perform a public speaking activity (Allen at al, 1989). The main goal of CR is to turn any negative or problematic belief the speaker has for himself or towards the activity, and turn it into something positive to help alleviate the anxiety (Schmidt, 2015). The most common usage of CR is by employing a checklist of beliefs or a negative-self talk checklist. Then, the student will look at the negative beliefs, and create a positive version of it every time there is a public speaking activity. For example, a student may write in the negative part ‘I will stutter when speaking’, and write the opposite of it in the positive part like ‘I will speak fluidly because I practiced’. This kind of technique replaces an irrational (negative) belief with the rational (positive) one to condition the student’s mind into lessening their anxiety.

In a study done Chambless, Tran, and Juster (as cited in Morris, Mensink, Stewart, n.d), students who had a frequent negative perception on their abilities had lesser results than those with the positive ones. This supports the notion that in order for a person to lessen their own level of PSA, it is important for them not only to feel ‘relaxed’, but also modify their own belief and confidence in their capacity to perform the task.

Goals and Expectations

The Goals and expectations for Jane is that she will have a lower level of public speaking anxiety and will display reduced signs of public speaking anxiety as the intervention is implemented. The intervention will last for eight to twenty weeks as it is no meant to be a long - term therapy. It will consist of Cognitive Reconstructions. The limitations towards CBT is that the person who undergoes CBT would need to commit to the process. Another limitation would be that CBT would address the underlying causes of mental health conditions such as unhappy childhood as it focuses on very specific issues.


I would expect the outcome of using cognitive therapy to be effective. Cognitive therapy is known to treat clients who suffer from depression and anxiety (Redhead, Johnstone Nightingale, 2015). Formulation has been a hypothesis and it has influence interpersonal and behavior problems (Redhead et al., 2015). Formulation allows the client and counselor to work together to get an understanding of the client problems (Redhead et al., 2015). Formulation relieve emotional distress, increase client understanding of the problem, and improve the therapeutic alliance (Redhead et al., 2015). Formulation has enable the client to feel empower, relief, and talk more openly (Redhead et al., 2015). One of the most challenging aspects of the treatment is watching the client work through their problems. Talk therapy doesn’t always make an individual feel better and changing behavioral style can be upsetting to a counselor. However, being in therapy will reduce some client symptoms but the journey can get bumpy sometimes. The way a client moves though such pain and agony will most of the time yield incredible results. Clients must get through their problematic patterns which can be hard to detach. However, the biggest challenge is helping the client separate from those maladaptive patterns of thoughts and beliefs. It takes strength, hope, and faith to let go. When that happens for a client it is much rewarding.

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