How Constructivism Relates to Understandings of Phobias

Are phobias a modern day social construct?

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Constructivism is a type of learning theory that explains human learning as an active attempt to construct meaning in the world around us. Constructivists believe that learning is more active and self-directed than either behaviorism or cognitive theory would postulate.

Constructivism divides learning into two types: accommodation and assimilation. The focus is on the individual’s desire and ability to learn, and the teacher or therapist is merely there to help guide self-directed learning.

There are several types of constructivism, including:

Here we will discuss cognitive and social constructivism as it relates to an explanation for phobia. The explanation of social constructivism comes second because it's a variation of cognitive constructivism.

Cognitive Constructivism

Psychologist Jean Piaget gets credit for creating cognitive constructivist theory. It consists of two major parts called: ages and stages. The ages component predicts children's ability to understand or not understand certain things. The stages component posits that humans cannot immediately understand and use information, instead, they must build their knowledge through experience.

This theory directly contradicts the educational model most U.S. public schools use to transfer knowledge. Where teachers expect students to memorize given information after briefly practicing it, rather than discovering their own interest in something and then experiencing it.

 In a Piagetian classroom setting the teacher creates a rich environment allowing students to spontaneously explore. 

Social Constructivism

Social constructivism is a variety of cognitive constructivism put forth by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He believed in the cognitive model but asserted that it's not just the process of learning that's important, it's "the process by which learners were integrated into a knowledge community." 

He saw that learning requires a social interaction between people. Thus, social constructivism was born.

Both cognitive and social constructivism see knowledge as actively constructed.

Social Constructivism and Phobia Treatment

A therapist following social constructivist theory to treat a phobia patient would posit that a person can only understand another's fear by exploring the social context of the patient's experience.

This same theory is reflected in social constructivists treatment plans for phobia. A therapist following this theory would believe the efficacy of the treatment would be largely dependent on the environment in which the patient used the prescribed intervention.

Therefore, your therapist might teach you a variety of strategies. For example, to overcome your fear while at home and another for when you are in public.

The Social Construction of Anxiety Disorders

Experiencing bouts of anxiety is just part of being human. However, reported anxiety levels have risen at an alarming rate since the end of WWII.

Now, in the 21st century, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems worldwide.

Phobias are an anxiety disorder and some clinicians believe the social construct of our modern society, with its fast pace and high demands, contributed, and continues to contribute, to this uptick in anxiety disorders. 

Even more evidence suggests, according to an article published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, the rise is due to the prevailing belief in our society "that anxiety-related symptoms are a socially and medically legitimate response to life in the modern age," 

Sources:

Berkeley Graduate Division: Social Constructivism

Dowbiggin. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry: High Anxieties - the Social Construction of Anxiety Disorders (2009)

Hays and Singh. Qualitative Inquiry in Clinical and Educational Settings. (2012)

University of Houston: Overview of Cognitive Constructionism

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