Implications of a New Theory of Disuse for the Treatment of Emotional Disorders


Address correspondence to Dr. Ariel J. Lang, now at the University of California San Francisco, Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, 401 Parnassus Avenue, Box CPT, San Francisco, CA 94143-0984.


In this review, we conceptualize exposure-based treatment as a learning experience. With this approach, optimizing treatment is a matter of optimizing memory for new learning. Given that perspective, we discuss the implications of a “new theory of disuse,” proposed by Bjork and Bjork (1992) to capture the storage and retrieval dynamics that characterize human memory. The theory distinguishes between the storage strength and retrieval strength of learned representations and provides a framework from which we derive a number of manipulations that have the potential to improve the long-term effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy. Implications for treatment of specific fears are described in detail, with additional discussion regarding treatment for other emotional disorders.