Whether it is a fear of spiders, snakes or heights, many of us have phobias that we would love to be rid of for good. Now, a new study suggests that we can, by watching other individuals interact with the object or scenario that frightens us.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden say that experiencing our fears through the actions of another person may be more effective than trying to combat our fears directly, and it could even prevent them from resurfacing.

Previous studies have suggested that social forms of learning may trigger phobias, the researchers say. From this, they wanted to see whether it could also help to suppress them.

The study, published in Psychological Science, involved conducting a vicarious learning experiment on 36 male participants.

All participants were shown a series of faces. The appearance of one face was followed by an unpleasant electrical stimulation to the wrist six out of the nine times it was presented. The researchers say this was to teach the participants to associate the target face with the electric shock.

The researchers then showed the participants two movie clips of the same experiment in which the target face was not linked to the electrical stimulation. One movie clip showed a person carrying out the experiment, while the other clip did not.

The findings of the study revealed that participants who watched the movie clip that included a person showed a significantly lower fear response to the target face, compared with those who watched the clip that did not include a person.

Additionally, when the participants who viewed the movie clip of the person received three electric shocks without warning upon seeing the target face, they showed no sign of reinstated fear.

Armita Golka, of the Karolinska Institutet and lead study author, says:

Information about what is dangerous and safe in our environment is often transferred from other individuals through social forms of learning.

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 researchers note that similar vicarious therapeutic interventions have previously been used to treat those who have phobias.

Although they have proven effective, the researchers say that patients often suffer from relapses and their fears resurface. Therefore model-based learning, as demonstrated in this study, may prove more effective.

“Compared with a standard extinction procedure, vicarious extinction promoted better extinction and effectively blocked the return of previously learned fear,” the study authors write.

“Our results confirm that vicarious and direct emotional learning share important characteristics but that social-safety information promotes superior down-regulation of learned fear.”