Watching Others Face Your Fears Could Help You Overcome Them

edge of cliff
Fear of heights is one of the most common phobias. Claire Taylor, CC BY-SA 2.0

Conquering fears may be among the most difficult things to do, since doing so often involves facing them directly. But if you’re up for the challenge, one new study has found that it may be easier than you expect, suggesting that it’s possible to overcome a fear by watching someone else face it for you.

“Information about what is dangerous and safe in our environment is often transferred from other individuals through social forms of learning,” lead author Armita Golkar, of the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden, said in a statement. “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.”

Previous research has already shown that people can learn to fear something by observing others, Golkar said, so she set out to see if the opposite could happen. The researchers showed a series of face pictures to a group of 36 participants. Six out of the nine times they were shown one particular face, they were given an electrical shock on their wrists.

Now that the shock was associated with the face, they wanted to see how the participants would react to seeing the face without the shock, and furthermore, to seeing if they could relinquish some of their fears. They split the participants into two groups. One group watched a video in which the faces were shown again, however, there was another person watching the faces, and there was no shock when the face showed up. The other group was shown the same video also without a shock whenever the face appeared, but without the person watching the faces as well.

They found that those who saw the video with the person in it showed a significantly lower fear response to the face than those who watched it without the person. What’s more, the fear didn’t return when the participants were shocked three times without expecting it.

About nine percent of the U.S. population experiences a clinically significant phobia, with some of the most common being heights, spiders, and flying. But many other people suffer from severe anxiety disorders — about 18 percent of Americans.

While therapists have already been using similar treatments to help patients overcome their phobias, many experience relapse. “Our findings suggest that model-based learning may help to optimize exposure treatment by attenuating the recovery of learned fears,” Golkar said in the statement.

Source: Golkar A, Selbing I, Flygare O, et al. Other People as Means to a Safe End Vicarious Extinction Blocks the Return of Learned Fear. Psychological Science. 2013. 

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