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Watching Others May Diminish Phobias

Update Date: Sep 16, 2013 11:25 AM EDT

Watching others may help people overcome phobias, a new study suggests.

People with phobias have a strong, irrational fear of things that actually pose no real danger. Phobias, whether it's fear of spiders, clowns or small spaces, are common and can be difficult to treat. However, new research reveals that watching someone else safely interact with the objects of fear can help extinguish these conditioned fear responses, and prevent them from recurring later on.

Researchers say that the latest findings suggest that vicarious social learning may be more effective than direct personal experience in wiping out fear responses.

"Information about what is dangerous and safe in our environment is often transferred from other individuals through social forms of learning," lead author Armita Golka of Karolinska Institutet in Sweden said in a news release. "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."

The latest study involved 36 men. The participants were asked to look at a series of faces.  Six out of nine times, the pictures were followed by a small, painless shock to the wrist. Researchers said that this picture was designed so that participants learned to link the target face with the electrical stimulation. Afterwards, participants watched a movie clip of the experiment in which the target face did not come with shocks to the wrist.

Researchers explained that participants who watched the movie clip, those in the social learning condition group, exhibited significantly less fear response to the target face than those who watched a similar clip that didn't include a person.  Participants in the social learning condition group 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," Golkar said.

Researchers noted that vicarious safety learning has long been used as part of exposure treatment to phobias.  Patients after watch their therapist approach and interact with the feared stimulus before they themselves are directly exposed to it. Researchers said that while these therapies can be successful, many patients suffer from relapse.

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

Researchers said the next step is to look at the neural processes that may play a role in vicarious safety learning by studying the specific properties of the learning model, or the individual being observed, that are important for the efficiency of such learning.

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

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