Afraid of spiders, snakes, the dark, or small spaces? New research suggests watching someone else confront such fears — and interact with the sources of such phobias — may help at least some people deal with them better.
The research, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicates this type of so-called "vicarious social learning" may be more effective than getting phobics to become directly involved in confronting their fears.
"Information about what is dangerous and safe in our environment is often transferred from other individuals through social forms of learning," said lead researcher Armita Golka, of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. "Our findings suggest that these social means of learning promote superior down-regulation of learned fear, as compared to the sole experiences of personal safety."
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For the study, 36 men were shown a series of faces, one of which was followed by an unpleasant, but not painful, electrical stimulation to the wrist six out of the nine times it was shown. The test was designed so that participants came to associate the target face with the electrical stimulation — and thus fear it.
Then, they watched a movie of the experiment in which the target face was not accompanied by an electrical stimulation. Participants who watched a movie clip that included an actual person — the social learning condition — showed significantly less fear in response to the face than those who watched a similar clip that didn't include a person.
"We were surprised to find that vicarious, social safety learning not only facilitated safety learning, it also prevented the recovery of the fear memory," says Golkar.
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