Vicarious fear learning in children: the role of stimulus fear-relevance

Askew, Chris, Dunne, Guler and Field, Andy (2010) Vicarious fear learning in children: the role of stimulus fear-relevance. In: BABCP 2010: 38th Annual Conference and Workshops; 20 - 23 Jul 2010, Manchester, U.K.. (Unpublished)


Evidence suggests that children can acquire fears vicariously by observing other people who already have the fear (Askew & Field 2007; Gerull & Rapee, 2002). Studies with monkeys indicate however, that fear vicarious learning 59 only occurs for ‘fear-relevant’ stimuli (Cook & Mineka, 1989). The current study investigated vicarious learning in children for two types of stimuli with differing levels of fear-relevance. Two groups of children (aged 6 - 10 years, N = 64) saw two novel animals (quoll and cuscus) or flowers (red avens and dotted loosestrife), either on their own or together with pictures of scared faces. Thus group 1 saw one of the animals presented with scared faces (vicarious learning) and the other animal on its own (control). This was repeated in Group 2 but children saw flowers instead of animals. Two fear-related measures were taken: 1) fear beliefs for the animals/flowers before and after vicarious learning; and 2) children’s avoidance feelings for animals/flowers determined by where they placed a figure representing themselves on a board (the ‘nature reserve’) relative to the animals/flowers. As in previous studies, children’s fear beliefs increased for animals seen with scared faces compared to the control animal. However, in contrast to Cook & Mineka (1989) similar changes in fear beliefs were also found for flowers. The same pattern of findings was also found for the avoidance measures. The findings suggest that vicarious fearlearning in children is not influenced by the fear-relevance of the stimulus involved in learning. If clinicians understand how and why a fear was acquired this should assist treatment.

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