Scientists Study Vicariously Unlearning Fears
September 16, 2013

Can Phobias Be Unlearned Vicariously?

[ Read the Article: Facing Your Fears Vicariously ]

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Whether it’s a fear of spiders or clowns, phobias can be difficult to overcome. However, new research from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden has revealed that seeing someone else safely interact with the feared creature or person can help to reduce these conditioned fear responses and keep them from resurfacing later on.

According to the Swedish researchers’ report that was recently published in Psychological Science, this kind of vicarious social learning could be more successful than the traditional approach of using direct personal exposure to reduce fear responses.

"Information about what is dangerous and safe in our environment is often transferred from other individuals through social forms of learning," said lead author Armita Golkar, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institutet. "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 found that social learning can lead to acquiring some of these fears, so Golkar and her colleagues wanted to see if it could also lessen learned fears.

In the study, 36 males volunteers were shown a series of faces. One of the faces was associated with an unpleasant, but not painful, electrical shock to the skin six out of the nine times it was displayed. This part of the experiment was designed to give participants a learned fear of the target face.

Next, the participants were shown a movie clip of the same experiment, except the target face was not linked to an electrical stimulation. Participants who watched an actual person perform the experiment showed considerably less fear response to the target face than those who saw a similar clip that didn't feature a real person. The experimental group also did not display signs of a restored fear response after they were given 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," Golkar said.

The Swedish researchers also noted that a type of vicarious learning has long been used to treat phobias. Individuals in treatment often watch as their therapist comes within reach of and interacts with the feared stimulus before they themselves are slowly exposed to it. These therapies have been shown to be effective, but many patients experience a relapse.

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

The researchers said they are currently looking into the neural processes behind vicarious safety learning and they are examining the precise properties of the model.

UK-based technology startup Virtually Free is taking a similar, albeit more high-tech, approach to treating phobias. A smartphone app developed by the company exposes users to increasingly more realistic spiders and allows them to share their progress over social networks.

The app also includes video game scenarios that ask users to rescue spiders from difficult situations –gradually appealing to arachnophobics’ empathy.