Psychology Learning Resources
Joseph Wolpe and Systematic Desensitization

Joseph Wolpe (1915-1997)

Joseph Wolpe Joseph Wolpe was born April 20, 1915, in Johannesburg, South Africa, the eldest of four children. His parents valued intellectual achievement and the well-being of others. As a child he was an avid reader and excelled in school. In 1933 he enrolled in a six-year course in medicine at the University of Witwatersrand. During these years he consorted with students of philosophy and became heavily influenced by Bertrand Russell’s Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth. (Interestingly, Wolpe took no university courses in psychology.) Wolpe graduated at the onset of World War II and volunteered for the South African Medical Corps. He served at a military hospital, treating “war neuroses” using a combination of psychoanalysis techniques and drugs. Following the war he returned to the university to pursue an M.D. degree in psychiatry (equivalent to an American Ph.D. in medicine). Dissatisfied with his therapeutic outcomes during the war and newly influenced after reading the works of Pavlov and Clarke Hull, Wolpe was “determined to find an alternative to Freud for dealing with neuroses” (Poppen, 1998, p. 188).

In 1946, soon after returning to the University of Witwatersrand, Wolpe was fortunate to meet Leo Reyna, a new appointment in the psychology department who was well versed with Hull-Spense learning theory. “Wolpe profited greatly from Reyna’s generosity with his encyclopedic knowledge, critical perceptiveness, and innovative thinking” (APA, 1980, p. 45). The two of them were to maintain a lifelong fruitful professional relationship. One early collaboration was a famous experiment in which Wolpe produced “neurosis” in cats by administering shocks in their experimental cages. Then, as he explains,

“... I offered neurotic cats food pellets in various rooms in descending order of their similarity to the experimental room until I found a room where the anxiety was too weak to inhibit eating. At first, the animal ate with hesitation in that room, but after a while he ate readily. Still later he accepted food in a room more like the experimental room, where he had previously refused food. After a further succession of stages he finally ate in the experimental cage in which he had been shocked, with the eventual elimination of all anxiety there…

“This experiment and some variations, having succeeded in overcoming the neuroses of a dozen animals, and having failed in none, lead to the formulation of the reciprocal inhibition principle of psychotherapy: An anxiety response habit can be weakened by evoking a response incompatible with anxiety in the presence of the anxiety-evoking stimulus .” (Wolpe, 1976, p. 17)

After obtaining his M.D. in 1948, Wolpe was soon to discover that “there was little payoff for a young learning theorist in an obscure corner of the globe” and thus “began a psychiatric practice to support his family” (Poppen, 1998, p. 190). Nevertheless, his laboratory experience was to have an enduring influence. According to Reyna (1998), “When he moved to the consulting room measurements of events before, during, at termination, and follow-up became routine from the start” (p. 187).

Through years of clinical practice Wolpe came to develop the techniques for assertiveness training, systematic desensitization, sexual therapy, and aversion relief. These procedures, “with their discrete, stepwise, measurable dimensions of therapist and patients’ behaviors, generated hundreds of experiments” (Reyna, 1998, p.188).

Wolpe’s most famous therapeutic procedure, systematic desensitization, evolved from his laboratory work. As a therapist, he “endeavored to overcome anxiety in patients by getting them to perform acts that were antagonistic to anxiety in their daily lives” (Wolpe, 1990, p. 151). Heavily influenced early on by Salter’s Conditioned Reflex Therapy (1949), the antagonistic act that he prescribed to all his clients was assertion. He realized, however, that theoretically this was an ill-advised approach for those persons whose anxiety was caused by nonpersonal events such as enclosed spaces or the sight of blood. In fact, these particular clients of his did not improve. Fortunately, late in 1949, he read Edmund Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation (1938) and discovered relaxation training to be an anxiety-inhibiting procedure with wide generality. One problem remained.

“As it is difficult to control real-life situations, I began to explore the possibility of using imaginary ones, which can be graduated at will. I was delighted to discover that anxiety diminished progressively, eventually to zero, when a patient repeatedly imagined a situation that was weakly anxiety arousing. Increasingly “threatening” imaginary stimuli could in this way, one by one, be divested of their anxiety-evoking potential, with transfer of change to the corresponding real situations.” (Wolpe, 1990, pp. 151-152)

Wolpe maintained a practice and taught in Johannesburg, until, in 1960, he accepted an appointment in psychiatry at the University of Virginia. In 1966, he moved to Temple University, where he established the Behavior Therapy Unit at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute. Here, he was instrumental in the most extensive investigation of psychotherapy ever undertaken to that time. “Not published until 1975, this study forced mainstream psychology to recognize behavior therapy and to face directly questions of effectiveness” (Poppen, 1998, p. 190)

Wolpe retired from Temple in 1988 and was appointed to an emeritus position at Pepperdine University. He continued to write and lecture internationally, until his death in 1997.

Notable books by Wolpe include Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition (1958) and the Practice of Behavior Therapy (1990), the latter having undergone four revisions since its original publication in 1969. Wolpe founded the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, “a journal notable for its innovative content, and, as the title indicates, providing a link to the psychiatric community” (Poppen, 1998, p.191). Wolpe’s accolades include the Distinguished Scientific Award for the Application of Psychology from the American Psychological Association (1979) and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy (1995).

Joseph Wolpe was, and continues to be, a major influential force in psychology. Reyna (1998) proclaims that he provided “the foundations for experimentation in the broad field of individual psychotherapy” (p. 187). Gambrill (1998) writes “One of Wolpe’s great contributions was his recognition of the relevance of learning principles to all behavior” (p. 193). And, in Poppen’s (1995) view, “Wolpe’s assessment and therapy techniques have made lasting contributions at several levels: as a body of effective procedures in themselves; as benchmarks and stimuli for the development of more effective or efficient procedures; and as models for the specification of such procedures” (p. 191).

A former student of Wolpe has described him this way: “His gentleness, warmth, and consistent respect, empathy, and concern for clients in honoring their preferences and offering them the best science had to offer in addressing their concerns were consistently present during the year I worked closely with him” (Gambrill, 1998, p. 197). In the end, though, as Poppen points out, “the acceptance of Wolpe’s methods were not based on a cult personality but on a respect for reason and data” (Poppen, 1995, p. 198).

Eva Wolpe and Gerald Davison have established a Joseph Wolpe collection in the Archival Library at the University of Southern California, which includes audio and visual tapes of clinical sessions, demonstrations, interviews and workshops, in addition to published and unpublished writings and correspondence (Reyna, 1998). A detailed account of Wolpe’s life and contributions can be found in Poppen (1995)