The etiology of specific fears and phobias in children: a critique of the non-associative account

Behav Res Ther. 2002 Feb;40(2):185-95. doi: 10.1016/s0005-7967(01)00051-1.


The non-associative account of phobic etiology assumes that a number of specific fears (e.g., fear of heights, water, spiders, strangers, and separation) have an evolutionary background and may occur in the absence of learning experiences (e.g., conditioning). By this view, these specific fears pertain to stimuli that once posed a challenge to the survival of our prehistoric ancestors. Accordingly, they would emerge spontaneously during the course of normal development and only in a minority of individuals, these specific fears would persist into adulthood. While the non-associative approach has generated interesting findings, several critical points can be raised. First, it capitalizes on negative findings, i.e., the failure to document learning experiences (e.g., conditioning, modeling) in the history of phobic children. Second, it largely ignores factors that have been found to be crucial for the acquisition of early childhood fears (e.g., the developmental level of the child, stimulus characteristics such as novelty, aversiveness, and unpredictability, and early experience with uncontrollable events). As an alternative to the non-associative account, we briefly describe a multifactorial model of childhood fears and phobias.

Publication types

  • Comment

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Cognition
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Phobic Disorders / etiology*
  • Psychological Theory