In psychology, reciprocal inhibition is a form of behavioral therapy in which a desired behavioral response is repeatedly carried out in the presence of a stimulus that normally triggers an undesired response. For example, a patient with a phobia of snakes might be repeatedly exposed to the presence of a snake, while practicing a deliberate relaxation procedure. The theory behind this type of reciprocal inhibition therapy is that, with sufficient repetition, the old, undesirable response can be unlearned, and a new behavioral pattern can be permanently established.
Reciprocal inhibition psychology has spawned a variety of specific approaches to therapy, including desensitization therapy, assertion therapy, and avoidance conditioning. The original theory of reciprocal inhibition psychotherapy, however, was developed by a South African psychologist, Joseph Wolpe, who published his ideas in 1958 in a paper titled “Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition.” In this seminal work, Wolpe claimed that it was possible to treat anxiety and phobic disorders by teaching clients to relax during a process of gradual exposure to the anxiety-producing stimulus.
Wolpe first demonstrated this concept in a series of experiments on cats. The first step in this process was to expose the cats to an unpleasant shock, paired with a specific sound. After some conditioning, the cats would react with fear to the sound alone. This is an example of classic Pavlovian conditioning. Next, Wolpe showed that the fear response could be gradually unlearned, if he reversed the stimulus, and combined the same sound with the presentation of food.
In the theory of reciprocal inhibition, reciprocal behaviors are defined as behaviors that compete against each other. For example, a relaxation behavior in which the skeletal muscles are relaxed is considered reciprocal to a “fight or flight” stress response in which the muscles become tense. By repeatedly practicing the desired behavior in the presence of the stimulus that used to trigger the undesired behavior, the response to the stimulus is weakened and eventually, if the treatment is successful, the undesired behavior is eliminated.
Wolpe developed his ideas by working with soldiers who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and met with considerable success. Initially, much of the psychotherapeutic community was skeptical regarding the theory of reciprocal inhibition, suggesting that this method would result only in substitution of symptoms in a patient, and not in a permanent cure. However, Wolpe's work formed a pioneering psychotherapeutical theory that has been largely incorporated into modern behavioral therapy.