Claustrophobia is a very common fear. According to B.F. Skinner, this is likely a learned fear. If a person is exposed to situations in which closed spaces result in scary experiences, then the person will learn to be afraid of closed spaces.
It is possible that a person who is afraid of small spaces was once trapped in a small space, even for a brief time. In fact, it is likely that this person had some bad experience with small spaces. Perhaps being in a small airplane when turbulence happened was a person’s experience. It is also possible that as a child, the person crawled into a closet and couldn’t easily get back out. The person could have ridden an enclosed carnival ride and ended up getting sick from the experience. Whatever the situation, it’s likely that person had a bad experience with being in small spaces at some point in life.
This is especially likely because there are people who are not afraid of small spaces, and one can theorize that they have not had bad experiences with them. Perhaps some people even like small spaces. Some person might have crawled into a cabinet to hide from his parents fighting when he was a kid, and found comfort in being hidden away. There are many scenarios that a person might have experienced that either reinforced the experience or caused an aversive reaction.
This is an example of operant conditioning, but it is not directly reliant on rewards or punishments. For example, no person is directly rewarding or punishing the person who is afraid of small spaces. But, the person’s experience while in the small space might serve as a reward or a punishment in his own mind.
In order to help a person who is claustrophobic, a series of steps would need to be taken to desensitize the person to the stimuli. Skinner and his followers created a method for desensitizing people to objects that they are afraid of, called shaping. Shaping can be used to help the person who is afraid of small spaces.
First, the person needs to visualize ten steps of scenarios, from least distressing to most distressing. An example in this case of least distressing might be being in a reasonable sized room with no windows or doors or other people – an enclosed and limited-sized area, but not tiny by any means. The most distressing might be being locked in a tiny, dark closet, in which the person can fit only by curling himself up in a ball. Then, the person is supposed to go from step to step and help to reduce his anxiety in each of the stages until he thinks he can stand the worst possible scenario with no or minimal anxiety.
Another possibility is to actually expose the person to the stimuli that causes anxiety a small amount at a time. For example, put the person in a medium-sized room with doors closed and windows covered, with the lights on. Gradually increase the situation until is a high-anxiety producing situation, but stop at the point where the person is uncomfortable. The idea is that when the person is in the situation which is most anxiety-producing, he will not be experiencing the same anxiety he used to. This is known as shaping.
These scenarios help a person to change their reaction to a particular environment or situation in order to reduce fear. If a person is constantly rewarded for doing something, in this case, by experiencing low or nonexistent anxiety levels, they will be more likely to repeat the behavior. However, if the person has an aversive reaction, like an anxiety attack while in the situation, they will be less likely to repeat the behavior and will associate the anxiety with the situation. The reduced anxiety that results from the training should be seen as a reward, and the person should respond by being less afraid of the situation.
Boeree, Dr. C George (2006). “B.F. Skinner.” Accessed December 17, 2006. Website: http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/skinner.html.