Phobias, although common, are sometimes difficult to treat. People are just as likely to avoid the feared object than they are to proactively treat their irrational anxiety surrounding it.
New research suggests one way to extinguish conditioned fear responses is to watch others safely interact with the object.
Researchers believe this type of vicarious learning may be more effective than direct personal experience in alleviating fear and preventing it from resurfacing later.
“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 Golka.
“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.”
Considerable research has shown that social forms of learning can contribute to the acquisition of fears, which led Golkar and colleagues to wonder whether it could also help to extinguish learned fears.
In their study, found in the journal Psychological Science, 36 males participants were presented with a series of faces. One of the faces was followed by an unpleasant, but not painful, electrical stimulation to the wrist the majority of the times it was shown.
This procedure was designed so that participants learned to associate the target face with the electrical stimulation.
Next, they watched a movie clip 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 response to the target face than those who watched a similar clip that didn’t include a person.
And they 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,” said Golkar.
Golkar and her colleagues noted the 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,” the researchers said.
The researchers are currently examining the neural processes that may play a role in vicarious safety learning and they are investigating the specific properties of the learning model — in this case, the individual being observed — that are crucial for the efficiency of such learning.