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Joseph Wolpe 20th April 1915 to 4th December 1997

Joseph Wolpe was born in South Africa and studied at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg where he obtained his MD. During the Second World War he worked in a military psychiatric hospital - his role as a medical officer in the South African Army.

After the war he worked at the University of Witwatersrand and began to devise 'systematic desensitisation' as a form of behavior therapy. Various therapeutic procedures, including psychoanalysis, seek to influence the mind on the understanding that having done so then any unwanted behavior will fade. Behavior therapy seeks to do the opposite - to change a person's behavior directly with the result that any related mental anguish will be eased.

Both approaches are valid because mental activity and behavior are dependent on each other - and neither one can be identified as the controlling entity. Although it is widely assumed that actions can only result from choice of mind, this is not so. For example, if a very shy person can be persuaded to 'act' confidently then that person will almost invariably report that they also feel more confident while they are performing this task, and repeated 'acting' results in a reinforcement of the confidence gained.

Desensitisation was originally criticised as a therapeutic process for only being useful in cases which are 'monosymptomatic' ie:- only have a single symptom whereas with more complex problems it was alleged that 'the deep cause ' of neuroses were left untouched by desensitisation. However there is no real proof that any such ' deep cause ' exists. Joseph Wolpe was particularly blunt in one of his replies to such criticism stating that "... because the psychoanalysts have misapprehended the requirements of scientific evidence they have adduced no acceptable support for their theory, beguiling themselves with surmises, analogies and extrapolations". He was also well qualified to comment since he was a psychoanalyst himself until dissatisfaction with the limitations of his own art encouraged him to re-assess the needs of his patients resulting in the birth of behavioral therapies in the early 1950s. There are still unnecessary insults hurled from one camp to the other - one Doctor of psychoanalysis writing in 2002 incorrectly describes Joseph Wolpe as 'a behavioral psychologist... who was actually studying cats more than dealing with clients'. Studying cats was certainly involved in the thought processes that spawned the concept of behavior therapy in Wolpe's mind - but by definition, behavioral psychology did not exist at this time - it was only when Wolpe applied his feline observations to the human condition that behaviorism began to be evolved. It is clear though, that such description wishes us to see Wolpe as a rural incompetent which is so very far from the truth and is unhelpful to the progress of all psycho-science. My own opinion is based purely on practical concerns - why bother with things that remain unproven when there are procedures ( Including those that use behavior therapy ) which are clearly defined and work well.

Both phobias and more complex neuroses develop as a result of the learning process going astray so desensitisation aims to enable people to 're-learn'. On finding that we have been wrongly informed about ordinary facts and figures, re-learning is easy - if, for some reason we have been taught that two plus two equals five, then on discovering that that is incorrect we simply replace the incorrect data with the right answer - this occurs in our 'higher' memory which is very much under our control.

If the false learning is associated with instincts it is linked with our primitive ( hypothalamic) brain functions it is not so easily changed since it forms part of our fundamental structure, usually as a process related to development. To try to clarify this - we all have the instinct to avoid anything that would cause us physical injury - that is all part of the instinct to survive - it is a necessary result of our genetic structure, however we have to learn what things and situations could possibly cause physical injury. Because this information is vital to our survival, we take it very seriously, so we naturally allow such learning to take control.

Where someone has 'learnt' that a balloon represents potential danger and this learning is linked to instinctive processes, then that person takes every precaution to avoid balloons - in exactly the same way that people in general avoid other such learnt dangers such as putting ones hand into flames. Even if such a person can realize on a technical level that balloons do not represent a life threatening hazard, the association of balloons with instinct means that it is a harder thing to re-learn, and therefore such re-learning needs a process which is different and more comprehensive than simply replacing false data with true knowledge, and desensitisation is one such process which can achieve this. In fact where balloons are seen instinctively as a danger but there is a reasoned understanding that they are not a threat, this internal conflict may add to any anxiety that is felt.

The self therapy that I have suggested on this site is somewhat different to the therapy you would receive from a behavior therapist - essentially because the therapist is not present, but an explanation of the normal process could be helpful.

The first step in the process is to produce a 'hierarchy' which is a list of situations which cause you anxiety with the most disturbing at the top of the list and numbered '1' with the next most disturbing at number 2 and so on until all the situations that appear to require therapy have been listed. For convenience the list can be limited to ten suitable items. Behavior therapy is interested in what is known as 'stimulus - response' and to define both accurately in the hierarchy - in the case of balloon popping phobia a stimulus would be being close to a balloon and the response would be fear or anxiety - and behavior therapy simply seeks to change the response to a greater calmness by learning this new response.

It is, at this stage, useful to look at the nature of the problem that is effectively defined by the hierarchy. Where there is a range of problems which are all related it is normally defined as a 'simple neurosis' - so single phobias fall into this category. Where there several categories represented in the list of problems it is usually referred to as a 'complex neurosis'. There may be links between problems that appear to be unrelated which the therapist will try to uncover by general enquiry so that any past events that may have initiated more than one problem area can be brought into the open so that they can be discussed and understood by the client.

During therapy the client is encouraged into a very relaxed state which is by definition incompatible with fear, and is asked to imagine a situation which is related to a mild form of the least disturbing problem on the hierarchy. This is continued until the situation itself can be imagined in its entirety and so confidence in meeting this situation in real life is established. It is unusual, but not unknown, for the patient to be taken into the real situation by the therapist where there appears to be incomplete success using the imagination technique.

Once the least disturbing situation on the list is overcome then therapy is concentrated on the next anxiety causing situation and so on until all the items on the list have been dealt with satisfactorally. If the list contains many items then therapy can take quite a time - Joseph Wolpe's own figures for a period of his own work which he monitored shows that for simple neuroses the average number of therapeutic sessions required was 15, whereas where complex neuroses were found the number of sessions required was 55. Every form of therapy enjoys some success and occasional failures - behavior therapy having one of the best track records with an achievable success rate close to 90% whereas the average success rate for all therapeutic processes is only 50%.

I am certain that Joseph Wolpe was right to criticise psychoanalysts for their reliance on unproven, and often unprovable, theories, but that is not to say that underlying causes do not exist, just that they are unlikely to be defined in any accurate way using psychoanalytical terminology. Everyday language should be sufficient to describe everyday events but that in itself is no guarantee that we understand the all the implications of particular happenings in our lives - indeed we may not remember some of the things that cause us problems because we can easily repress or blot out any memories which are uncomfortable or unsavoury, and it may take a discussion with a highly trained therapist to rediscover lost memories and to understand their significance.

Another therapy that was developed by Joseph Wolpe is called assertiveness training. The therapy helps people to stand their ground and is designed to build self confidence, so with this general approach it can help with a wide variety of problems. It is important to understand that the aim is simply to provide a person with the tools to support their individuality - to make sure that no-one is able to take advantage of someone they may think of as weaker, it is not about learning to impose on or control other people - but to be able to resist the efforts of others who wish to do that to us.

Assertiveness training can take place in groups so it is useful to people who wish their problems to remain a secret while gaining confidence in the group situation. Assertiveness trainers will not always inquire about your reasons for attending the group and the question can be sidestepped anyway - or you can say 'I would rather not be specific' if asked. The group normally uses role play in order to allow people to get used to situations which can be upsetting, such as arguments or the prospect of complaining about faulty goods or poor workmanship. Also there are usually exercises which seek to encourage the group to rely on each other. In one such exercise, a member of the group stands in the middle of a circle formed by the rest of the group. The person in the middle is encouraged to 'let go' by closing their eyes and allowing themselves to become unbalanced - the circle of people around are there to catch the falling person and gently push that person upright again, the result is that the person in the middle is gently pushed backwards and forwards and left and right. This is allowed to take place for up to a minute, and each person in the group takes turns in the middle.

This teaches each member of the group that they can rely on each other, with the wider implication that there are circumstances where they can trust other people as well.

Following his research at the University of Witwatersrand Joseph Wolpe moved to the USA where he taught at the University of Virginia. In 1965 he became a professor of psychiatry at Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia where he stayed until his retirement in 1988. That same year he moved to California where he was soon back in action lecturing at Pepperdine University and was doing so until a month before his death in his 84th year.

The thoughts and inventions of one person are often merged into other therapies to some extent and also can act as a catalyst which enable others to think of new ways to approach therapy and help people with their lives. There are very few people who have had the dedication or the capacity to make the enormous contribution to the practice of the psychological sciences that has been made by Joseph Wolpe.


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