Desensitization (psychology)

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Desensitization (psychology)

In psychology, desensitization is a treatment or process that diminishes emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it. Desensitization also occurs when an emotional response is repeatedly evoked in situations in which the action tendency that is associated with the emotion proves irrelevant or unnecessary. The process of desensitization was developed by psychologist Mary Cover Jones, and is primarily used to assist individuals in unlearning phobias and anxieties.[1][2][3] Joseph Wolpe (1958) developed a method of a hierarchal list of anxiety evoking stimuli in order of intensity, which allows individuals to undergo adaption.[4] Although medication is available for individuals suffering from anxiety, fear or phobias, empirical evidence supports desensitization with high rates of cure, particularly in clients suffering from depression or schizophrenia.[5]


The hierarchical list is constructed between client and therapist in rank ordered series of steps from the least disturbing to the most disturbing fears or phobias. Secondly the client is taught techniques that produce deep relaxation. It is impossible to feel both anxiety and relaxation at the same time[6], so easing the client into deep relaxation helps inhibit any feelings of anxiety. Systematic desensitization (a guided reduction in fear, anxiety or aversion[7]) can then be achieved by gradually approaching the feared stimulus while maintaining relaxation. Desensitization works best when individuals are directly exposed to the stimuli and situations they fear so anxiety-evoking stimuli are paired with inhibitory responses. This is carried out either by clients performing in real life situations (known as vivo desensitization), or, if it is not practical to directly act out the steps of hierarchy, by clients observing models performing the feared behaviour (known as vicarious desensitization). Clients slowly move up the hierarchy, repeating performances if necessary, until the last item on the list is performed without fear or anxiety.[4]

Effects on animals[edit]

Horses have a natural fear of unpredictable movement. Pictured is a horse being desensitized to accept the fluttering skirt of a lady's riding habit.

Animals can also be desensitized to their rational or irrational fears. A race horse who fears the starting gate can be desensitized to the fearful elements (the creak of the gate, the starting bell, the enclosed space) one at a time, in small doses or at a distance. Clay et al. (2009) conducted an experiment whereby he allocated rhesus macaques to either a desensitization group or a control group, finding that those in the desensitization group showed a significant reduction in both the rate and duration of fearful behavior. This supports the use of PRT training. Desensitization is commonly used with simple phobias like insect phobia.[8][9] In addition, desensitization therapy has been shown to be a useful tool in training domesticated dogs.[10] Systematic desensitization used in conjunction with counter-conditioning was shown to reduce problem behaviours in dogs, such as vocalization and property destruction.[11]

Effects on violence[edit]

Desensitization also refers to the potential for reduced responsiveness to actual violence caused by exposure to violence in the media, although this topic is debated in the scientific literature on the topic.[12] Desensitization may arise from different sources of media, including TV, video games and movies. Some scholars suggest that violence may prime thoughts of hostility, with the possibility of affecting the way we perceive others and interpret their actions.[13][14][15]

It is hypothesized that initial exposure to violence in the media may produce a number of aversive responses such as increased heart rate, fear, discomfort, perspiration and disgust. However, prolonged and repeated exposure to violence in the media may reduce or habituate the initial psychological impact until violent images do not elicit these negative responses. Eventually the observer may become emotionally and cognitively desensitized to media violence. In one experiment, participants who played violent video games showed lower heart rate and galvanic skin response readings, which the authors interpreted as displaying a physiological desensitization to violence.[16] However, other studies have failed to replicate this finding.[17][18] Some scholars have questioned whether becoming desensitized to media violence specifically transfers to becoming desensitized to real-life violence.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stolerman, Ian (2010). Encyclopedia of Psychopharmacology. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer.
  2. ^ T.L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach. "Unit 6: Learning." pp. 101
  3. ^ RJ, McNally (1987). "Preparedness and phobias: A review". Psychological Bulletin. 101 (2): 283–303. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.101.2.283.
  4. ^ a b Coon (2008). Psychology: A Journey. USA: Thomson Wadsworth Corporation.
  5. ^ Nemeroff, C.B. (2001). The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science. Canada: John Wiley & Sons.
  6. ^ Jennifer, Hellier (2016). The Five Senses and Beyond: The Encyclopedia of Perception: The Encyclopedia of Perception. ABC-CLIO. p. 127. ISBN 9781440834172.
  7. ^ R. K., R. W., Russell, Lent (1982). "Cue-controlled relaxation and systematic desensitization versus nonspecific factors in treating test anxiety". Journal of Counseling Psychology. 29 (1): 100–103. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.29.1.100.
  8. ^ Chamove, Arnold S. (2005). "Spider phobic therapy toy". The Behavior Analyst Today. 6 (2): 109–110. doi:10.1037/h0100057.
  9. ^ Carnagey, Nicholas L.; Anderson, Craig A.; Bushman, Brad J. (1 May 2007). "The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 43 (3): 489–496. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.003.
  10. ^ Butler, Rynae; Sargisson, Rebecca J.; Elliffe, Douglas (2011). "The efficacy of systematic desensitization for treating the separation-related problem behaviour of domestic dogs". Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 129 (2–4): 136–145. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2010.11.001.
  11. ^ Butler, Rynae; Sargisson, Rebecca J.; Elliffe, Douglas (2011). "The efficacy of systematic desensitization for treating the separation-related problem behaviour of domestic dogs". Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 129 (2–4): 136–145. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2010.11.001.
  12. ^ Freedman, J.L. (2003). "Assessing the Scientific Evidence". Media Violence and its effect on aggression: assessing the scientific evidence. Canada: University of Toronto Press Incorporated. ISBN 9780802084255. JSTOR 10.3138/j.ctt1287sxj.
  13. ^ Paludi, M.A. (2011). The Psychology of Teen Violence and Victimization. USA: ABC-CLIO, LLC.
  14. ^ Gubler, Joshua R.; Kalmoe, Nathan P.; Wood, David A. (September 2015). "Them's Fightin' Words: The Effects of Violent Rhetoric on Ethical Decision Making in Business". Journal of Business Ethics. 130 (3): 705. doi:10.1007/s10551-014-2256-y.
  15. ^ Gubler, Joshua R.; Herrick, Skye H.; Price, Richard P.; Wood, David A. (October 2015). "Violence, Aggression, and Ethics: The Link Between Exposure to Human Violence and Unethical Behavior". Journal of Business Ethics. 147: 25–34. doi:10.1007/s10551-015-2926-4.
  16. ^ Gentile, D.A. (2003). Media Violence and children: a complete guide for parents and professionals. U.S.A.: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc.
  17. ^ Tear, Morgan J.; Nielsen, Mark (2013). "Failure to Demonstrate That Playing Violent Video Games Diminishes Prosocial Behavior". PLOS ONE. 8 (7): e68382. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068382. PMC 3700923. PMID 23844191.
  18. ^ Ramos, Raul A.; Ferguson, Christopher J.; Frailing, Kelly; Romero-Ramirez, Maria (2013). "Comfortably numb or just yet another movie? Media violence exposure does not reduce viewer empathy for victims of real violence among primarily Hispanic viewers". Psychology of Popular Media Culture. 2: 2–10. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/a0030119.
  19. ^ Bennerstedt, Ulrika; Ivarsson, Jonas; Linderoth, Jonas (2011). "How gamers manage aggression: Situating skills in collaborative computer games". International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. 7: 43–61. doi:10.1007/s11412-011-9136-6.