Best known for his ground breaking work on systematic desensitization and assertiveness training, Joseph Wolpe became one of the foremost theorists on Behaviorism whose tenets are grounded on the basis of observable behavior rather than focusing on the inner mental state as ascribed to by the psychoanalytic theory of Freud (Joseph Wolpe, 1). Wolpe was born on April 20, 1915 in Johannesburg, South Africa; historical records show that he lived a rather uneventful life leading up to the attainment of his doctorate degree in Psychology from the University of Witwatersrand (Joseph Wolpe, 1).
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It was when World War 2 started that Wolpe would be exposed to the necessary conditions that would become the basis for his theories in the future. Working as a medical officer in the psychiatric ward of a military hospital he was responsible for treating patients suffering from a form of “war neurosis” (Rosner, 183). This particular malady was characterized by high levels of anxiety, constant flashbacks, nightmares, problems falling asleep as well as sudden outbursts of anger combined with a form of hyper vigilance bordering on paranoia. It is now known that what the patients were truly suffering from at the time was PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Initial efforts using traditional means of curing the patients using various forms of drug therapy proved themselves to be largely ineffective and as a result Wolpe attempted to find an alternative means of treatment for his patients.
It must be noted that while today the symptoms of PTSD can be controlled somewhat through the use of certain types of medication the fact remains that the application of drug therapy methods is usually used as a last resort due to the potential for alcohol and drug abuse that comes with PTSD. At times it has been seen that drug therapy actually worsened the condition which makes the contributions and work of Wolpe that much more important in the realm of behavioral therapy. In his attempt to find an alternative method of treatment Wolpe came up with a type of desensitization technique that placed an emphasis on the use of relaxation methods in order to deal with the resulting fear and anxiety responses that were common with “war neurosis”.
Overall theorist’s concepts on mental disorders
For Wolpe, the development of mental disorders was grounded in his belief that human behavior and behavioral responses can be learned and as such develops into unique/ detrimental facets of an individual’s behavior. This belief is similar to the concept of classical conditioning developed by Pavlov wherein a series of contiguous events can make an organism learn an association between one event and another which can actually create a conditional involuntary response in that organism or individual. For example in one experiment a lab technician wore the color red in front of a cat and used a portable air horn to scare the cat. The next time he approached the cat he wore a different color and did nothing however the next time he approached the cat again he wore the color red once more and used the air horn to scare the cat.
This continued for one week till the cat became visibly scared by the color red when the lab technician was wearing it despite him not doing anything at all. From this it can be seen that behavioral responses to a certain event can be learned and a type of involuntary response can be expected if such a response is associated with the event. This is similar to the concept of phobias wherein a person is presented with an animal that he is irrationally afraid of and the result is fear (arachnophobia) or in the case of an inanimate object such as a large body of water (hydrophobia) or a type of state that they are placed in (ex. being locked inside a closet) that causes an irrational fear (claustrophobia).
From this it can be seen that the basis of Wolpe’s concept on the development of mental disorders is that it is a certain type of learned behavior affecting the normal thought processes of an individual which has long lasting psychological effects. In a way this concept on the development of mental disorders could be compared to development of certain types of aberrant behavior wherein a child that was abused early on in his life by parents becomes an insular and withdrawn adult as a result of what he/she learned as a child.
Based on Wolpe’s concept though the development of mental disorders is not isolated to a time period when an individual was young but rather can occur at any point in time. This assumption is based on the development of “war neurosis” (a.k.a PTSD) by individuals who had previously no mental disorders to speak off. In fact under this assumption it can be stated that any individual has the potential for developing a certain type of mental disorder depending on what external forces act on his/her mind.
How the theorist determines the cause (etiology) of mental disorders
It was theorized by Wolpe that most of the behavioral aspects of an individual are learned and as such whether they be good or bad they are reflected in the way a person acts, thinks, speaks and the manner in which they interact with the outside world. In essence it can be stated that it is outside influences affecting the learning process of the mind that has the potential to create a mental disorder. It must first be noted that a mental disorder is characterized by a pattern of behavior, thought or emotion that is considered unusual by societal standards. This can come in the form of a distinct lack of empathy for the plight of certain people, a certain degree of social awkwardness, a preference for isolation, laughing when it comes to watching scenes of horror, pedophilic tendencies and other forms of irrational behavior that cannot be explained away by mere eccentricities.
The most prevalent and obvious of these disorders are forms of anxiety and phobias wherein individuals display an inordinate amount of fear towards an object, concept, person or status than what a normal person would normally show. For Wolpe these types of behaviors are the direct result of these individuals learning to fear these objects, concepts, people or states of being through some application of external stimuli. The problem with attributing the cause of these particular mental disorders to the application of mental stimuli is the fact that if this were true then everybody would develop some form of phobia or trauma since daily living in itself is a constant learning experience (Harzem, 6).
One way of justifying the cause of mental disorders as stated by Wolpe is to examine the case of soldiers in World War 2 and their “war neurosis”. The fact of the matter is war is a highly traumatizing event that can push a person to mental extremes as a result of the constant stress attributed to fighting, marching, dealing with the death of friends and comrades as well as having to kill when necessary. The development of “war neurosis” among some of the fighters is assumed to be due to their minds being overwhelmed by the experiences they had to endure which as a result brought about PTSD (Marchand, 246).
From this it can be assumed that in order for a mental disorder to develop a sufficient and constant strain or shock must be applied to the mind via an external force in the environment (Marchand, 246). Since for Wolpe behavioral aspects are developed through learning it can be interpreted that the normal learning process of the mind only creates mental disorders when it is constantly exposed to an event over a certain length of time. One example of this can be seen in the development of certain mental disorders in teenagers and adults that were previously molested or raped constantly as children.
It can be seen in numerous studies investigating the mental status of such individuals that the long term physical and mental abuse they suffered at the hands of their abusers had the effect of creating a distinct mental disorder comparable to depression, isolation and a fear of people. In some instances among the young girls involved in the cases this took the form of being afraid of all men in general resulting in the need to utilize female researchers in the interviews involving such subjects.
The results show that it was due to the abuse sustained over several years that created the mental disorders they had developed. On the other hand individuals who develop certain phobias do so only after a sudden an inexplicable shock to their system which leaves an indelible mark on their mind. One example is that of a person almost drowning and developing hydrophobia as a result. Unlike the case involving abused children this one happened abruptly and was not done over a prolonged period of time; one likely explanation for this is that time is not a factor when it comes to the development of certain mental disorders but rather it is the degree of shock to the system that causes the development of the disorder in the first place.
How the theorist determines the best form of treatment of a mental disorder
For Wolpe the basis of treatment lay with the belief that since human behavior itself is learned then there is also the possibility that negative or harmful behavior can be unlearned. Utilizing Pavlov’s classical conditioning concept which states that a series of contiguous events can make an organism learn an association between one event and another which can actually create a conditional involuntary response in that organism or individual. For the sake of expediency I will state my earlier example involving the lab technician wherein a lab technician wore the color red in front of a cat and used a portable air horn to scare the cat.
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The next time he approached the cat he wore a different color and did nothing however the next time he approached the cat again he wore the color red once more and used the air horn to scare the cat. This continued for one week till the cat became visibly scared by the color red when the lab technician was wearing it despite him not doing anything at all. From this it can be seen that behavioral responses to a certain event can be learned and a type of involuntary response can be expected if such a response is associated with the event.
Wolpe postulated and proved utilizing a similar experiment to what was suggested in this paper that after several sessions with a cats under the same duress as the one experimented on by the lab researcher that it was actually possible to remove the fear stimulus by adding a pleasant stimulus in the form of food everytime the stimulus to fear abruptly reared itself. Wolpe theorized that if such a concept were applicable to cats then it would also be applicable to humans and could be utilized in a manner in which to treat phobias. The result was a method that involved relaxing the subject and gradually exposing them to the unpleasant memories over a series of degrees always associating the memory with a state of relaxation until the phobia affecting the person gradually disappeared. A copy of the scale is show below which Wolpe used to gauge the degree by which a patient could be influenced to subtlety unlearn the behaviors associated with a particular memory.
The resulting pioneering work done by Wolpe resulted in the creation of cognitive-behavioral therapy which today is a widely used method in helping people with phobias or types of trauma such as soldiers suffering from PTSD. His work has become the basis of modern behavioral therapy with thousands or perhaps millions benefiting from therapies that were based off of his pioneering ideas enabling multiple individuals to overcome their fears, faces their traumas and actually move forward with their lives. Before concluding this paper there must be one aspect that must be noted regarding Wolpe and his theories on the learning process and how this affects the behavior of individuals. Though his assumptions are sound the fact remains that they neglect to take into account the possibility of a person developing mental illnesses on their own without the addition of some outside factor that influenced it.
Factors such as inherited genetic predispositions and the presence of supposed chemical imbalances in the brain are part of the so called “biological” reasoning behind the creation of several aspects of mental disorders. An examination of the work of Wolfe does not seem to indicate how he takes into account possible biological factors which cannot be learned as being contributing factors to the development of mental disorders. As such this represents a distinct gap in the literature which future developments using behaviorism should take into account when utilizing it as a means of explaining and resolving problems related to abnormal psychology. In that that it must be realized that the learning process is not always the primary reason behind the development of abnormal psychology in various individuals.
Wolpe, Joseph.”Life of Wolpe.” Hutchinson’s Biography Database (2003): 1. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web.
Rosner, Rachael. “Life of Joseph Wolpe.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 33.2 (1997): 183-184. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web.
Harzem, Peter. “Behaviorism for new psychology what was wrong with behaviorism and what is wrong with it now.” Behavior & Philosophy 32.1 (2004): 5-12. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web.
Weinberg, Norris, and Zaslove, Marshall. “Resistance to systematic desensitization of phobias.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 19.2 (1963): 179-181. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web.
Marchand, William. “A preliminary study of the effect of a diagnosis of concussion on PTSD symptoms and other psychiatric variables at the time of treatment seeking among veterans.” Military Medicine 176.3 (2011): 246-252.
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