Psychologists are experimenting with an admittedly rather materialistic approach to treating phobias: bribing people to confront their fears.
In a recently published study, researchers in Germany investigated whether monetary incentives could overwrite avoidant behaviors rooted in fear. The researchers recruited a group of 84 people with either high or low fear of spiders.
The participants were then prompted to approach objects, some of which triggered their fear of spiders. As you might expect, people with a fear of spiders were initially reluctant to do so.
But then the researchers provided a hypothetical monetary incentive. They wondered: is the prospect of a payout enough to overwrite people’s fears?
At least in this case, the answer appears to be yes. Even participants who were very fearful toward spiders were more willing to approach objects that triggered these feelings of fear. In some cases, their avoidant behaviors disappeared entirely.
Further research revealed that social (as opposed to monetary) incentives achieved similar aims. Together, these findings led the researchers to conclude that “incentives are useful to initiate initial approach towards a feared stimulus.”
That said, a one-time payout wasn’t enough to put a permanent end to people’s feelings of arachnophobia. When the incentives were withdrawn, people who were fearful of spiders remained, perhaps unsurprisingly, fearful of spiders.
Still, the researchers argue that these incentives could form the basis of a larger strategy for treating phobias. In particular, social or monetary incentives might provide an initial motivation for engaging with situations that provoke fear. Once that initial step is taken, it might lay the groundwork for more in-depth treatment. In the words of the researchers, “although incentive-based approach may neither fully eliminate avoidance nor negative feelings towards the feared stimulus,” it could “set the stage for more extensive [fear] extinction training.”