Mowrer's Two-Factor Theory: This is How Your Fears Work

Phobias, anxiety, and paralyzing anguish... the mechanics of fear aren't as mysterious as you probably think. Learn about them with us!
Mowrer's Two-Factor Theory: This is How Your Fears Work
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

Despite the fact that Mowrer’s two-factor theory was enunciated in 1939, it remains one of the most interesting models for two reasons. Firstly, it allows you to understand fear mechanisms and how anxiety disorders and phobias occur. The second reason is that it gives a valuable starting point to deal with many of those manifestations in which fear sets limits on well-being.

To speak of anxiety is to refer to fear and anguish. 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. Few arguments are as true as this, however, nothing’s as typical of the human being as holding on to concerns and fears.

It makes sense, after all, as they’re a part of human nature and serve as survival mechanisms. Nonetheless, on occasions, they may lead an individual to a pathological state. In case you didn’t know, panic disorders, obsessions, or phobias orchestrate the daily lives of thousands and thousands of people and keep them from living a normal life.

These states are overbearing, taxing, and difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t experience them. Understanding the most basic mechanics of fear can help you unmask your worst enemy. Let’s delve a little deeper into this subject.

“The fear of facing your fears is harder to overcome than the fear itself.”


Mowrer’s two-factor theory: what does it consist of?

Mowrer’s two-factor theory was enunciated by Orval Hobart Mowrer in 1939. This American psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Illinois is best known for his research on behavioral therapy. One of his interests was to learn where phobias come from and why they’re so difficult to eliminate once they’ve arisen.

It’s quite useless, for example, to explain to someone who has a fear of airplanes that the chances of dying while crossing a traffic light are higher than in a plane crash. The mind clings to certain ideas and maintains them over time until they completely change our behavior. Dr. Mowrer was a pioneer in this matter. In fact, he shed light on the mechanisms behind many anxiety processes.

A worried-looking man full of phobias.

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

  • Picture someone who needs to be in control of every aspect of their life, someone who’s obsessive and very demanding. Suddenly, they get on a plane for the first time and realize they’re not in control of that situation.
  • They start to feel trapped and tied up high above the ground, which leads them to suffer a panic attack. As a consequence, they’ve been unable to go on a plane ever again since then.
  • And not only that but now their fear’s even greater. They’re terrified of going on vacations or work trips. Being forced to go on a plane again intensifies their anxiety even more.

In the example above, you can see two dimensions that define Mowrer’s two-factor theory. Let’s expand on them.

Phase 1. Classical conditioning

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

  • The individual transforms a neutral and innocuous stimulus (an airplane, a spider, an event at work, a crowded supermarket, etc.) into a painful or traumatic stimulus.
  • For example: “Ever since I had a bad experience with my co-workers, I find it very difficult to get up, get ready, and go to work. That place has become a nightmare for me”.
  • As you can see, in this phase, the person experiences something apparently normal in an unpleasant way.

Phase 2. Instrumental conditioning

After suffering the impact of classical conditioning (a specific stimulus acquires a painful connotation), it’d be enough to just avoid that situation to return to normal. However, when it comes to phobias and anxiety, the brain works differently.

That’s when the second phase, instrumental conditioning, comes into play.

Let’s move on to the workplace example. If the individual was bullied by their co-workers, it’d be more than enough to just leave that job for their suffering to end, right?

  • Not really. That isn’t always the case. It can be much more complex than that. For example, any workspace may trigger the memory of that past experience.
  • “When I remember everything that happened, it’s impossible for me to go back to work. My mind relates any job to what I went through in the past.”
  • With this behavior, all that they’re doing is reinforcing fear. There’s a scary stimulus -> they avoid it -> they also avoid everything that reminds them of that original stimulus -> the fear becomes greater.

Therefore, the individual isn’t just avoiding the original aversive stimulus but everything that comes close to it.

A fearful woman wanting to overcome her phobias through mowrer's two-factor theory.

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

Mowrer’s two-factor theory shows the irrational foundation that many fears have and how they keep an individual from living a normal life. Firstly, it’s okay to flee from what hurts, from what acts as a real threat. However, many of the phobias and fears aren’t logical or guarantee our survival. On the contrary, some fears do nothing but hinder our growth.

Exposure techniques are very suitable for dealing with these psychological realities. Putting yourself before the terrifying phobic stimulus and rationalizing that fear is always a good step. Likewise, brief strategic therapy is also a good resource to unblock everything that limits you and that leaves you submerged in your fears.

Fighting your fears is your responsibility. Make use of the tools you have to do it.

“Courage is knowing what not to fear”.


All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Mowrer, O.H. (1939). A Stimulus-Response Analysis of Anxiety and its Role as a reinforcing agent. Psychological Review, 46 (6): 553-565.
  • Mowrer, O.H. (1954). The psychologist looks at language. American Psychologist, 9 (11): 660-694.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.