Reaction Observation Reduces the Risk of Phobia Relapse

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • As a child you perhaps saw the dread on the face of your mother as she watched a spider scurry across the floor. She shrieks and physically recoils. The tension in her voice is palpable as she urges someone to do something. You’ve witnessed a common phobia, but as a child you have no concept of such things. However, what you may well have registered is that creepy crawlies are to be feared and avoided. Observation is a form of learning and plenty of research points to the fact that fears can be learned through this process.


    The fact that learning influences fear development is an important feature of therapy. The theory is simple enough in that what we learn we can unlearn. Once our beliefs and attitudes towards the feared object or situation change, we find relief.  As I say, that’s the theory. A frustrating feature of phobia treatment is the fact that the phobia may be responsive to treatment, but it resurfaces later, or even pops up in a different form. However, some new research suggests that watching someone else safely interact with the feared object can not only help to end the fear but stops it resurfacing later.

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    What’s new about this? Surely an established part of exposure therapy includes the therapist interacting with the feared object? This is something lead author Armita Golkar of the Karolinska Institute was mindful of. The results of a study, published in Psychological Science, reveal that simply observing others interact with a feared object could be more effective than direct personal experience in attempts to extinguish fear.


    In their study, 36 male participants were presented with a series of faces, one of which 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.

    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.


    Model-based learning, they conclude, might therefore be a useful addition to existing exposure therapy techniques.




    Golkar, A et al (2013) Other People as Means to a Safe End: vicarious extinction blocks the return of learned fear. Psychological Science published online 10 September. Available online at

Published On: September 25, 2013