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Study Notes

Characteristics of Phobias

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The characteristics of phobias can be categorised under three main headings: behavioural, emotional and cognitive.

Behavioural characteristics

The behavioural characteristics of phobias can be divided into two characteristics: avoidance and panic.

The key behavioural characteristic of a phobia is avoidance. If a person with a phobia is presented with the object or situation they fear, their immediate response is to avoid it. For example, a person with arachnophobia will avoid being near spiders and people with a social phobia will avoid being in large crowds.

However, people are not always able to avoid their fears and sometimes they come face-to-face with an object or situation they fear, which results in panic, causing high levels of stress and anxiety. Sometimes, the fear response is so intense, it results in a person ‘freezing’, which is part of the ‘fight or flight’ fear response. The freezing response is an adaptive response to make a predator think that their prey is dead.

Emotional characteristics

They key emotional characteristics of a phobia, are excessive and unreasonable fear, anxiety and panic. An emotional response is triggered by the presence, or the anticipation of, a specific object or situation, which is excessive in relation to the danger actually posed.

Cognitive characteristics

The cognitive characteristics of phobias are also divided into two characteristics: selective attention and irrational beliefs.

If a person with a phobia is presented with an object or situation they fear, they will find it difficult to direct their attention elsewhere. Therefore, a person’s selective attention will cause them to become fixated on the object they fear, because of their irrational beliefs about the danger posed.

Furthermore, a person’s phobia is defined by their irrational thinking towards the object or situation. For example, a person with arachnophobia may believe that all spiders are dangerous and deadly, despite the fact that no spiders in the UK are actually deadly.

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