Other people as means to a safe end

A Golkar, I Selbing, O Flygare, A Öhman, A Olsson: Other people as means to a safe end. In: Psychological Science, 24 (11), pp. 2182-2190, 2013.


Information about what is dangerous and safe in the environment is often transferred from other individuals through social forms of learning, such as observation. Past research has focused on the observational, or vicarious, acquisition of fears, but little is known about how social information can promote safety learning. To address this issue, we studied the effects of vicarious-extinction learning on the recovery of conditioned fear. Compared with a standard extinction procedure, vicarious extinction promoted better extinction and effectively blocked the return of previously learned fear. We confirmed that these effects could not be attributed to the presence of a learning model per se but were specifically driven by the model’s experience of safety. Our results confirm that vicarious and direct emotional learning share important characteristics but that social-safety information promotes superior down-regulation of learned fear. These findings have implications for emotional learning, social-affective processes, and clinical practice.