The research indicates that this type of vicarious social learning may be more effective than direct personal experience in extinguishing fear responses.
Lead author Armita Golka of Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, said that information about what is dangerous and safe in our environment is often transferred from other individuals through social forms of learning.
In their study, 36 males participants were presented with a series of faces, one of which was followed by an unpleasant, but not painful, electrical stimulation to the wrist six out of the nine times it was shown.
Next, they viewed movie footage of the experiment in which the target face was not accompanied by an electrical stimulation.
Participants who watched a movie clip that included an actual person - the social learning condition - showed significantly less fear response to the target face than those who watched a similar clip that didn't include a person. Also they showed no signs of a reinstated fear response after they received three shocks without warning.
The researchers wrote that their findings suggest that model-based learning may help to optimize exposure treatment by attenuating the recovery of learned fears.
The research has been published in Psychological Science.