Monday, January 7, 2008

Shaping Our Fears With the Right Information

The Role of Information in the Development of Fear Beliefs: End of Award Report

By Andy Peter Field and Robin Banerjee

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (July 2005) (Excerpts)

“Results showed that both positive and negative information changed fear beliefs…The Source of Information did not interact with the effect of the information, either explicitly in the FBQ scores or implicitly in the Affective Priming measure. This was in contrast to previous work which found that information was only effective at altering fear beliefs if it came from an adult rather than a peer (Field, Argyris & Knowles, 2001). Experiment 3, however, matched the faces and voices of the different informants much more closely and presenting them via the computer may also have reduced the felt difference between the informants…Fear beliefs did increase significantly after negative information compared to after no information and after positive information. Source of Information did not moderate or influence the effect of information in any way.

Affective Priming also showed differences between the negatively and positively portrayed situations, showing that the information had had an effect at an implicit level as well as at the explicit level…changes in fear beliefs did alter causal learning.

Specifically, negative information increased the rate at which a congruent causal
relationship was detected, and led to an overestimation of the frequency of negative outcomes when the causal relationship was incongruent with information and the actual frequency of negative outcomes was only 20%. For positive information, the results were broadly similar. Participants were quicker to detect the 80% frequency of positive outcomes after they had been given positive information about the situation and, when the outcomes were incongruent (that is, 80% negative and only 20% positive), participants consistently overpredicted the frequency of positive outcomes. This suggests that information can interact with causal learning experiences, and may in some cases have a protective effect.

Even after 40 trials of an 80% negative outcome, positive information led to an underestimate of the likelihood of a negative outcome…A key feature of clinical phobias and excessive fears is that they do not respond to verbal reassurances and show a resistance to extinction. That is, despite repeated experiences of the phobic object not leading to aversive outcomes, the fear persists.

...Further research should look at whether the type of fear learning that results from information is resistant to extinction or whether it can easily be reversed by contrary experience or information. The results of the causal learning experiments suggest that information can bias the processing of subsequent contrary evidence to minimise its evidential value. Elucidating the processes that lead to the persistence of fears and phobias in the face of contradictory evidence could have very useful therapeutic implications.”

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