An experimental test of the role of control in spider fear

Andrew Healey, Warren Mansell, Sara Tai

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It is well established that uncontrollable adverse experiences lead to increased distress, but the role of client control during psychological interventions such as exposure is less clear. Earlier studies reported inconsistent findings, most likely owing to variations in the way client control was manipulated, degree of exposure, the outcome variables chosen and the follow-up periods used. Importantly, studies to date had suggested to participants that approaching their fears was beneficial thereby biasing their choices and these studies had not measured change beyond the laboratory. We recruited 96 spider-fearful student participants (mean age = 22; SD = 5.9; Range = 18–45; 86 female). The experimental design allowed full choice over their degree of exposure, and manipulated the degree of control as the extent to which their movement of a joystick influenced their virtual distance from a moving spider image. Those with high control were yoked with a low control counterpart to ensure equal amounts of exposure. Measures were elicited at baseline, post-exposure, and at follow-up. As predicted, compared to low control participants, those with high control over exposure approached closer toward a spider post-exposure and reported less spider avoidance after an average of 17 days. No group differences were found in physiological or subjective distress during the task, nor in distress and dysfunction.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of anxiety disorders
Early online date14 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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