In the News

Psychology In The News | Curing Phobias May Help Others

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

3rd June 2024

Newly released research has found that exposure therapy for a specific phobia, such as a fear of spiders, could also help reduce other unrelated phobias like a fear of heights. This surprising finding suggests that the benefits of exposure therapy may generalise across different types of phobias.

The study involved adults aged 18-40 with significant fears of both spiders and heights. Participants first underwent assessments to gauge the intensity of their phobias through questionnaires, physiological measures, and behavioural approach tests (BATs) involving gradual exposure to the feared stimuli.

The BAT for spiders involved participants approaching a spider as quickly and as closely as they could. Scores were then allocated based on distance from the spider. If a participant would not enter the room they scored zero points whereas if they could move a spider in a jar they scored 13 points. For the heights BAT, participants had to climb the steps of a local church tower until their fear stopped them going any higher, they were awarded a score according to how high they reached.

One group then received exposure therapy specifically targeting their spider phobia over the course of 2 hours. This involved progressive steps like watching a spider in a jar, then getting closer, touching it with an object, holding it in a gloved hand, and finally holding it barehanded - only advancing when fear levels diminished.

Remarkably, when participants were re-tested after the spider exposure therapy, they showed reduced avoidance behaviour not just towards spiders, but also towards heights during the height BAT - despite receiving no exposure to heights. Their subjective fear ratings didn't significantly change, but their ability to approach feared situations improved across both phobias.

The researchers hypothesise that exposure therapy provides generalised emotional regulation skills that can transfer to other feared stimuli. The changes in avoidant behaviour may be the first step, allowing subsequent decreases in subjective fear levels over time.

Whilst more research is still needed on the longevity of these effects and their applicability in clinical settings, these findings offer an exciting glimpse into streamlining phobia treatment. If generalisable, fewer exposure therapy sessions may be required to achieve relief across multiple phobias simultaneously.


  1. Which experimental design was used in this study?
  2. What is a strength of using the above experimental design in this study?
  3. A self-report measure was used to assess participant fear level, what is a weakness of this method?
  4. Why could this research have economic implications?
  5. Patients were only assessed again for their fears immediately after their exposure therapy, why might this be a problem?

Challenge: Suggest an additional experimental condition that could be added to this study to further explore the generalisation effects of exposure therapy across different phobias.

Reference: (accessed 14.5.24)

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Rosey Gardiner-Earl

Rosey has 15 years of experience teaching Psychology and has worked as both a Subject and Senior Leader in school and large sixth form setting. Rosey is also an experienced A level Psychology examiner.

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