Vicarious Learning and Reduction of Fear in Children via Adult and Child Models

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Children can learn to fear stimuli vicariously, by observing adults’ or peers’ responses to them. Given that much of school-age children’s time is typically spent with their peers, it is important to establish whether fear learning from peers is as effective or robust as learning from adults, and also whether peers can be successful positive models for reducing fear. During a vicarious fear learning procedure, children (6 to 10 years; N = 60) were shown images of novel animals together with images of adult or peer faces expressing fear. Later they saw their fear-paired animal again together with positive emotional adult or peer faces. Children’s fear beliefs and avoidance for the animals increased following vicarious fear learning and decreased following positive vicarious counterconditioning. There was little evidence of differences in learning from adults and peers, demonstrating that for this age group peer models are effective models for both fear acquisition and reduction.

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