Title

Specific Phobias: Maintaining Control in the Face of Chaotic Threats

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1-1-2020

School

Psychology

Abstract

© 2020 Guilford Publications. All rights reserved.

Introduction: Drawing on existential psychology we examine the possibility that specific phobias can serve a psychological function. Specifically, we propose that phobic objects allow individuals to focalize anxieties about haphazard existential threats into a more manageable form, reducing perceptions of risk and bolstering control.

Method: We tested this by assessing perceived control among participants with varying levels of spider fear who were reminded of chaotic hazards (or not) and exposed to spiders images (or not).

Results: Study 1 (N = 940) found that among those high in spider fear, salient uncontrollable threats (vs. controllable threats or uncontrollable non-threats) reduced feelings of control unless participants were exposed to their phobic object. Similarly, exposure to spider (vs. non-spider) images bolstered perceived control in the face of salient hazards, but only for those high in spider fear. A second preregistered study (N = 1349) found that the palliative effects of focusing on a phobic object were partially explained by a decreased concern with haphazard harms.

Discussion: This supports the premise that phobic objects help to maintain control by narrowing the source of disordered risks, creating a more controllable conception of reality.

Publication Title

Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology

Volume

39

Issue

5

First Page

383

Last Page

418

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