Published: 18-09-2013 00:00 | Updated: 29-10-2014 10:40

Other people's experiences can cure phobias

Phobias – whether its fear of spiders, crowds or small spaces – are common and can be difficult to treat. New research from Karolinska Institutet suggests that watching someone else safely interact with the supposedly harmful object can help to extinguish these fear responses, and prevent them from resurfacing later on.

Information about what is dangerous and safe in our environment is often transferred to us from other individuals. Considerable research has shown that such social forms of learning can contribute to the acquisition of fears, which led first author Armita Golkar and her colleagues to wonder whether it could also help to extinguish these fears.

"Our findings suggest that these social means of learning is more effective in diminishing learned fear, compared to the sole experiences of personal safety," says Armita Golkar.

In their study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 36 men were presented with a series of faces. One of the faces was followed by an unpleasant, but not painful, electrical stimulation. Thus, the participants learned to associate the target face with the electrical stimulation. Next, the participants watched a film of another person being subject to the same test in which the target face was not accompanied by an electrical stimulation. A control group was shown another film which did not include a test person.

Participants who watched the clip that included an actual person – the social learning condition – showed significantly less fear response to the target face than those who watched the film that didnt 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 social safety learning not only facilitated safety learning, it also prevented the recovery of the fear memory," says Armita Golkar.

This research was supported the European Research Council and the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet). Study leader was senior lecturer Andreas Olsson at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience.


Other people as means to a safe end: vicarious extinction blocks the return of learned fear.
Golkar A, Selbing I, Flygare O, Ohman A, Olsson A
Psychol Sci 2013 Nov;24(11):2182-90