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Reciprocal inhibition therapy is a form of behaviour therapy based on the principles of reciprocal inhibition and counterconditioning as developed by J. Wolpe

In Wolpe’s search for a more effective way in treating anxiety he developed different reciprocal inhibition techniques, utilizing assertiveness training. Reciprocal inhibition can defined as anxiety being inhibited by a feeling or response that is not compatible with the feeling of anxiety. Wolpe first started using eating as a response to inhibited anxiety in the laboratory cats. He would offer them food while presenting a conditioned fear stimulus.[1]

After his experiments in the laboratory he applied reciprocal inhibition to his clients in the form of assertiveness training. The idea behind assertiveness training was that you could not be angry or aggressive while simultaneously anxious at same time.[2] Importantly, Wolpe believed that these techniques would lessen the anxiety producing association. Assertiveness training proved especially useful for clients who had anxiety about social situations. However, assertiveness training did have a potential flaw in the sense that it could not be applied to other kinds of phobias. Wolpe’s use of reciprocal inhibition led to his discovery of systematic desensitization. He believed that facing your fears did not always result in overcoming them but rather lead to frustration. According to Wolpe, the key to overcoming fears was “by degrees.”[3]

Over a period he developed a comprehensive approach to a broad range of symptoms and mental disorders and this formed the basis of reciprocal inhibition therapy which he outlined in his book "Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition".

See also

References & Bibliography

  1. Joseph Wolpe, Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition, (California: Stanford University Press, 1958), 53-62.
  2. Wolpe, Reciprocal Inhibition, 72-75.
  3. Wolpe, Reciprocal Inhibition, 71.

Key texts


  • Wolpe, J (1958) Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition. Stanford CA:Stanford University Press


Additional material



External links