Vicariously Lowering Fears by Observing Other People

Fear of heights, snakes, open spaces, or you name it, phobias are widespread and can be hard to treat. A new study from Sweden indicates that watching someone else safely interact with the allegedly harmful object can help to quench these conditioned fear responses, and stop them resurfacing later on.

The research suggests this type of vicarious social learning could be more effective than direct personal experiences in getting rid of fear responses.

“Information about what is dangerous and safe in our environment is often transferred from other individuals through social forms of learning,” says lead author Armita Golkar. “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.”

Don’t Watch and Learn

Substantial research has shown that social forms of learning can add to the acquisition of fears. This led Golkar and her team to wonder whether it could also help to extinguish learned fears.

In their study, 36 male volunteers were shown a series of faces.

One of the faces was followed by an unpleasant, but not painful, electrical stimulation to the wrist six out of the nine times it was shown. This procedure was designed so that participants learned to associate the target face with the electrical stimulation.

Following that, participants were presented with a movie clip of the experiment in which the target face was not accompanied by an electrical stimulation.

No Reinstated Fears

Participants who watched a movie clip that included an actual person, the social learning condition, displayed considerably less fear response to the target face than those who watched a similar clip that didn’t include a person. They also showed no signs of a reinstated fear response after they received three shocks without warning.

“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, of the Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience.

The researchers say vicarious safety learning has long been used as part of exposure treatment of phobias. Phobic individuals watch as their therapist approaches and interacts with the feared stimulus before they themselves are directly exposed to it.

While these therapies can be effective, many patients suffer from relapse, during which previously extinguished fears resurface.

“Our findings suggest that model-based learning may help to optimize exposure treatment by attenuating the recovery of learned fears,” say the researchers.

The team is currently examining the neural processes that may play a role in vicarious safety learning. They also are investigating the specific properties of the learning model, in this case, the individual being observed , that are critical for the efficiency of such learning.

A. Golkar, I. Selbing, O. Flygare, A. Ohman, A. Olsson.
Other People as Means to a Safe End: Vicarious Extinction Blocks the Return of Learned Fear
Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613489890

Photo: johndal via Flickr