Seligman's Preparedness Theory

Seligman's preparedness theory says that humans are phylogenetically prepared to fear certain stimuli more than others. Continue reading to find out more about it.
Seligman's Preparedness Theory

Last update: 23 July, 2021

Seligman’s preparedness theory explains how phobias are disproportionate fear reactions to harmless stimuli or stimuli that aren’t entirely harmless and controllable. There are countless theories on how phobias are acquired and maintained, and all of them are partly correct. What’s the explanation for some phobias being more frequent than others, though?

Preparedness theory explains that people are born ready to fear certain kinds of stimuli more than others. Its two central concepts are preparedness and predisposition for the acquisition of phobias. Today’s article will explore them in more detail.

“Do one thing every day that scares you.”

-Mary Schmich-

Preparedness theory: general characteristics

Seligman developed his priming theory in response to the equipotentiality theory, which states that all stimuli have the same facility for conditioning. Against this, he states that humans are phylogenetically prepared to fear certain stimuli more than others.

This means that we’re prepared to condition certain stimuli much more easily than others. This is an evolutionary process, as a result of the need for organisms to adapt to their environment. Thus, people are more likely to fear dangerous rather than harmless stimuli because it threatens human survival.

A woman afraid.

Characteristics of phobias

Seligman stated that phobias possess these four characteristics:

  • Firstly, phobias happen in a certain range of stimuli, as some situations provoke fear more easily than others. This selectivity seems to be related to the survival of the species.
  • One can easily acquire phobias in a single trial.
  • Thirdly, resistance to extinction is one of the most characteristic aspects of phobias. It refers to the resistance to extinction of conditioned responses to stimuli that people tend to quickly label as dangerous versus those that require several trials.
  • Finally, irrationality is one of the characteristics of phobias. It’s the disproportion or lack of consonance between the real danger of a stimulus and the anxiety response.

Central concepts: preparation and predisposition

Preparedness refers to the evolutionary processes of the species. Thus, there are three types of stimuli depending on how conditioned we are for them:

  • Prepared stimuli are anything humans are biologically prepared to learn as dangerous. Furthermore, this learning can happen in a single trial.
  • Unprepared stimuli are those that humans don’t automatically learn as dangerous and require several trials of association or conditioning.
  • Counter-prepared stimuli are those impossible to learn as harmful, despite continuous association trials.

Likewise, predisposition refers to those characteristics of an individual and their ontogenetic development that make them more prone to experience a phobia.

The Öhman group’s extension of priming theory

This group extended the priming theory and distinguished phobias according to their phylogenetic or evolutionary origin. It distinguishes between communicative and non-communicative fears.

Non-communicative fears are those that have no social or communicative function. In turn, communicative fears are those with the social function of transmitting messages between species. Moreover, there are animal or interspecific phobias, common to different species, and social or intraspecific phobias within the communicative fears.

Animal fears (interspecies) originate in the behavioral system of defense against predators and generate avoidance or escape responses triggered by automatic processes. Thus, this response leads to high activation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system.

Furthermore, social fears (intraspecies) arise from dominance-submission processes in the context of the same species. Therefore, they involve less automatic, more reflexive processes and produce responses that depend on controlled processes. Hence, they don’t always produce sympathetic activation responses.

Preparedness theory: a person panicking due to an itsy bitsy spider.

A great example of Seligman’s preparedness theory: the Garcia effect

This effect explains why people reject a type of food that made them sick at some point. This conditioned taste aversion occurs in a single trial or a single occurrence (easy acquisition). Thus, it’s enough to maintain the avoidance response. Moreover, people maintain it over time (the resistance to extinction that Seligman spoke of).

Garcia and Koelling found in their research that not all stimuli conditioning happens with the same ease. For example, one can easily associate a stomach ache with a given food or drink. However, you’d hardly associate it with a stimulus of a different nature, such as a light or a sound.

In addition to naming this discovery, Seligman personally experienced the Garcia effect. His experience showed that this association between food and stomach discomfort is so strong and resistant to extinction that not even reason can overcome this and other phobias (phobias are irrational).

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